Portland’s new Gov’t model is gonna cost dearly

By William Mackenzie,

In 2022, when Portland voters considered Ballot Measure 26-228 proposing transformational changes to city government, the City Budget Office estimated the cost of implementing the measure would be $910,000 to $8.7 million annually.

“The range of the cost estimate is dependent on policy decision making outside the charter scope,” the Charter Review Commission said.

Talk about buying a pig in a poke. To say the least, that left a lot of wiggle room.

Based on discussions to date, you can count on the final number being on the high end.

First, even the City Budget Office’s number is a ballpark estimate at best. As the Office said, “It is essential to note that the figures in this report are estimates and this report does not represent a budget document. Costs associated with council and mayor staffing levels, ranked choice voting implementation, and other election-related costs will only be known after certain operational milestones.”

Unknown’s, for example, are costs associated with the new ranked choice voting system, including voter education and outreach and changes in the Small Donor Elections program that provides candidates who have broad community support and follow program rules with up to a 9-to-1 match on the first $20 of small donations they receive from Portland residents.

On top of that, according to Willamette Week, an emerging  sticking point is renovation of City Hall to accommodate the City Council’s expansion from a mayor and 4 commissioners to a mayor and 12 commissioners elected to represent four new geographic districts.

From 5 to 13

Despite nearly a third of Portland’s downtown office market sitting vacant, and companies potentially reducing their footprint in more than 500,000 square feet of leased space that is set to expire market-wide during the balance of 2023, the city has budgeted up to $7.2 million to renovate City Hall to accommodate the council’s expansion.

That renovation does not take into account the potential cost of establishing an individual office for each of the 12 commissioners within their district.

Meanwhile, Mayor Wheeler has proposed spending $893,000 – $1.4 million to relocate commissioners’ offices to another city building during the City Hall renovation.

Then there’s the need to plan for a City Administrator and that person’s staff. The Administrator will be responsible for implementing the laws approved by the City Council and manage the city’s bureaus.

Mayor Wheeler has proposed that the City Administrator have an assistant city administrator and five deputies who would each oversee groups of the city’s bureaus. There are currently 26 bureaus, but that could change. Presumably, the City Administrator, Deputy City Administrator and the five deputies would also have administrative assistants of some sort.

Then there’s the issue of paying the mayor and the 12 city commissioners. Their initial pay has been set by an independent salary commission that was appointed in Jan. 2023.

In June 2023, the salary commission decided to give all of Portland’s elected officials big pay raises under the new governance system.  The annual base pay for all incoming City Council members will be $133,207, $7,513 more than the current rate. The mayor’s annual base pay will be $175,463, a $26,202 raise. The salaries will go into effect in January 2025.

The salary commission was not responsible for proposing how the city should pay the new salaries. The current City Council will have to figure that out.

Then there will be the staff of the mayor and each of the 12 commissioners. Currently, each city commissioner’s office has eight employees, including the commissioner, a chief of staff, and other aides performing a variety of duties.

Under Portland’s Adopted Budget for 2023-2024, three of the commissioners have a budget for 8 full-time positions and one (Dan Ryan) has a budget for 9 full-time positions::

  • Commissioner of Public Affairs, Rene Gonzales: $724,246
  • Commissioner of Public Safety, Mingus Mapps: $740,085
  • Commissioner of Public Utilities, Carmen Rubio: $775,038
  • Commissioner of Public Works, Dan Ryan: $761,405

In 2022, the City Budget Office assumed each of the twelve new offices would have between 3 and 4.7 full-time equivalent staff members supporting the Councilor and that each district of 3 representatives would have some level of shared staff providing communications and business operations functions.

Mayor Wheeler has proposed that each of the 12 councilors have two aides and some shared staff. Three of the current City Council members have proposed that each of the 12 Council members have just one staff person and that there be some administrative staff to serve all the council members.

If the number lands at the total envisioned by the City Budget Office or Mayor Wheeler, be prepared to for higher costs with such an elaborate expanded city government and for calls for more staff as the 12 individual commissioners press for more power.

And get ready for more waste as time goes on.

As humorist P.J. O’Rourke put it, “It is a popular delusion that the government wastes vast amounts of money through inefficiency and sloth. Enormous effort and elaborate planning are required to waste this much money.”