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What to Expect at Today’s City Budget Hearing

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by Alex Zielinski

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Dirk Vanderhart

The local (and global) uprising against police brutality has coincided with Portland City Council’s annual budget vote, scheduled to take place this week. The vote will determine how much of the city’s $5.6 billion budget will go towards the Portland Police Bureau (PPB)—as well as other city departments—for the fiscal year beginning on July 1. While the parsing of the PPB budget has always spurred debate during the annual budget vote, the timing of this year’s budget decision has drawn an unprecedented amount of public scrutiny of how Portland’s police are funded.

As of Wednesday morning, nearly 750 Portlanders had signed up to testify during a scheduled 2 pm Portland City Council hearing on the budget. Many of them will testify during the virtual hearing from outside City Hall, where a rally to cut PPB funding is being held. City Council was originally scheduled to vote on the final budget at the end of the afternoon hearing but, due to the Tuesday death of Mayor Ted Wheeler’s mother, commissioners are delaying the vote until Thursday at 2 pm.

The proposed budget, initially approved by City Council on May 20, currently sets $244.6 million aside for the PPB. But since that initial decision, which fell five days before the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, city officials have proposed significant changes to the police budget. On Tuesday, Wheeler announced he’d be cutting three significant PPB programs due to their history of discriminatory policing: The Gun Violence Reduction Team (GVRT), School Resource Officers (SRO), and the city’s contract with TriMet allowing officers to serve as transit police. Combined, these programs account for nearly $15 million of PPB’s proposed budget.

It’s not clear if cutting these programs equates to the PPB actually giving up $15 million—or if the funds will just be reshuffled to other PPB departments. However, during a Tuesday press conference, Wheeler did commit to slashing the PPB budget by $7 million and diverting those dollars to programs benefitting communities of color. Wheeler said he’ll also be pulling $5 million from other city bureaus to support these communities. It’s not yet clear how the total $12 million will be redistributed.

“I am asking… that all of our bureaus consider how we can uplift our Black community and our indigenous and other communities of color throughout bureaus,” said Wheeler Thursday. “The police bureau is the focus because of the murder of George Floyd… The conversation right now is about fundamental policing reform.”

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty is expected to introduce an amendment today to direct $4.8 million originally budgeted for the GVRT to buoy Portland Street Response, a new program that sends a mental health worker and first responder to 911 calls involving low-level mental health crises and complaints about homeless Portlanders instead of police officers.

Commissioner Chloe Eudaly is also expected to pitch an amendment to council to redirect the flow of city cannabis tax dollars away from PPB and instead “invest those funds in restorative justice, public safety, economic development, and addiction recovery initiatives.”

Amendments need the support of three out of four commissioners to pass—while the final budget vote requires unanimous approval. All items will be voted on Thursday.

Other organizations are pushing City Council to go further. A petition sponsored by Unite Oregon and the Portland African American Leadership Forum (PAALF) asks commissioners to reduce the entire PPB budget by $50 million and to defund the PPB’s Special Emergency Reaction Team (SERT), which currently accounts for $7 million of PPB’s proposed budget.

According to Hardesty, today’s hearing will run from 2 to 7 pm, with members of the public allowed 2 minutes to testify. This five-hour window still isn’t enough to account for all 742 people who’ve signed up, however, so public comment has been extended to tomorrow afternoon at 2 pm, prior to the budget vote.

Tune in to the City Council budget hearing here at 2 pm.

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