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The Price of Art

Details on the City's Last Thursday Spending

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THE PROSPECTS for harmony around Last Thursday looked good.

After the volunteer group that helped run the popular street fair quit in protest this June, Mayor Charlie Hales' office held a series of meetings. Neighborhood groups, businesses, and even the aggrieved volunteer group—Friends of Last Thursday (FoLT)—came to the table to hash out their differences.

Everyone described the two closed-door sessions as productive.

But as quickly as it seemed to come together, the whole deal fell apart. FoLT member Jeff Hilber says a series of conditions he set during the meetings were never met. Neither his group nor anyone else has applied for a city permit to run Last Thursday, and it appears nobody will in the near future.

"I feel like we've just thrown a year of hard work down the drain," says Hilber. "This is not going to happen with Friends of Last Thursday unless we have help."

The city, in other words, is once again holding the bag for this month's event. But while it might be easy to assume, given FoLT's continued absence, that the city's costs will dramatically increase, that's not the case.

While FoLT has organized Last Thursday since 2011, it contributed a relative pittance to the sizable cost of holding the event every May through September. The vast majority of funding has come from the city, records show—hundreds of thousands of dollars since July 2009.

And the city's spending on Last Thursday shot up significantly in recent years, after an increase in police overtime payments no one's been able to explain to the Mercury.

According to the records—the first specific accounting from city staff of exactly how much taxpayer money goes into the event—the city has spent well over $10,000 per Last Thursday since 2009. In the 2010-2011 fiscal year, bureaus dumped more than $20,000 into each monthly event, for a total of $102,952 in expenses.

Those costs are split between five bureaus, but their wild swings are easy to pin down. They've been dictated by the overtime Portland's paying its police officers. According to the city's accounting, officials laid out $16,817 in fiscal 2010 on overtime for Last Thursday. The next year, that number more than tripled, to $51,695. It's hovered around that level ever since.

At other street festivals around the city, "sure the police might show up, but it's within their regular hours of duty," says Chad Stover, a policy assistant in Hales' office. But "we literally have a Last Thursday roll call every month. There's probably 75 to 80 people there."

The Mercury last week asked both Hales' office and the police bureau what has accounted for the dramatic increase, but neither had an answer by press time.

Compared to these outlays, the city's increased costs to run Last Thursday in June and now July are relatively minor. Bureaus spent roughly $3,000 more last month to provide toilets, private security, and trash cleanup—more money than the financially troubled FoLT had been able to muster for the event.

It's unclear where the city goes from here, but it seems Hales may look to do on Alberta what he's discussed in Old Town/Chinatown: create an "assessment district" where local businesses would kick in to pay for expenses.

But those districts require neighborhood buy-in. Stover says it's not clear Alberta's willing to pony up.

"It's been an idea we've brought up and it seems like a logical one," he says. "Someone is earning a profit from this event."

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