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Hall Monitor

Dr. Budget's Harsh Medicine

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ANDREW SCOTT, director of Portland's newly created City Budget Office, isn't used to seeing his name in the paper. Until City Commissioner Amanda Fritz got her way and sprung them all loose last year, Scott and his team were just another cog in the opaque Portland Office of Management and Finance.

They were trotted out a few times a year to deliver budget news to the council—sometimes good, often somber, then promptly stuffed back into the dark pocket of the mayor, who, per Portland tradition, rules unchecked over all things fiscal and financial.

Things have changed now that the budget office is a bureau all unto its own. Though the mayor can still (technically) fire Scott whenever he wants, he now works (officially) at the behest of everyone on city council. That means he can say (mostly) what's on his mind.

And with Portland just beginning to wrestle down a $25 million budget deficit that easily could grow by several million more, that makes Scott maybe the most important person in the fight who isn't named Charlie Hales or Gail Shibley.

So what's he saying? Plenty. Scott and I had a long chat on Monday, February 11. Here's a sampling (and be sure to hit Blogtown later this week for a full transcript):

THIS IS THE WORST budget season Portland has seen in years, certainly the worst since the property tax rebellion of the 1990s that created Measures 5 and 50. "I don't want to say it's unprecedented, but it's been a long time since the city faced a cut of this level," he says. "We're asking bureaus to cut 10 percent. That's coming off at least four years of budget cuts."

• SAM ADAMS' BUDGETS really did contain real cuts, despite criticism that he conjured money from thin air to avoid pain. He also socked away plenty for a rainy day. "I don't think it would be fair to refer to those cuts as not real. People lost jobs and programs were reduced. It's just a different magnitude this year."

Scott also reminds us that it's policy, and not the economy, driving the current problem. If voters didn't create a library district, if the feds didn't slap the cops for roughing up people with mental illness, if the city had been flintier with union contracts, reductions "would be much more in line with past years."

• PUBLIC SAFETY is probably in trouble. Traditionally, cops and firefighters have been allowed softer cuts. This year's deficit is so big that would devastate other bureaus. And after years of putting off the worst pain for fire and police, "it would be very difficult to make any substantial reductions that didn't involve positions."

• CUTS ALONE won't do it. Scott thinks maybe half of the deficit can be cut away—for various reasons both political and practical. (He's got a point; already, commissioners and interest groups are balking at Hales' plans to whack sacred cows the city has funded with onetime cash for years.) So what else? In part, reining in labor contracts. Cutting back on cost-of-living increases alone would save millions. Again, politically difficult. But the reality?

"Council needs to look at the other options"—a statement that explains precisely why Scott might prefer to stay out of the limelight.

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