Mayor Sam Adams talks with Street Roots

By Joanne Zuhl and Israel Bayer, Staff writers

Support him or not, probably few people would want to trade places with Sam Adams right now. His first 18 months in office as Portland’s mayor has been saddled with a crushed economy that has hobbled the city’s financial status while fueling the need for city services. It has been plagued by ongoing flare-ups with police and the public, resulting in the firing of the police chief and the takeover of the bureau by the mayor’s office. And lurking in the shadows has been the rattling of recall efforts that twice failed to garner enough signatures to reach the ballot.

If it’s getting him down, it doesn’t seem to effect his game face, which more often than not remains stern and straight ahead. When we talked with him, he had just completed the 2010 City Budget — the 17th of his career working under former Mayor Vera Katz and now as mayor himself. This budget not only reflects the funding available now, but also projects a warning to bureau chiefs of the bumpy ride still to come.

Street Roots questioned the mayor about the budget and how he’s going to keep the so-called “city that works” working for everyone.

Street Roots: How does this budget stack up in terms of difficulty, obligations, priorities, etc.

Sam Adams: Putting together a city budget that balances basic services with smart investments in our city’s future is always challenging. This year’s budget was especially challenging due to the cuts to ongoing and one-time funds available. Fortunately, I work with a smart, dynamic and pragmatic group of colleagues on City Council. They fight for their bureau’s needs, but they also recognize the financial landscape we’re navigating through, and each is willing to compromise where necessary.

In terms of obligations and priorities, my first priority for this coming year’s budget (fiscal year 2010-11) was protecting the core services of the City and the services to help people most at need. It’s why I directed non-public safety agencies to cut 4 percent from their budgets and asked public safety agencies to target 2-3 percent. It’s also why I worked with Commissioner Nick Fish to increase funding to pay for increased shelter bed capacity, especially to meet more of the demand for women’s shelter beds. And, coupled with the Portland Development Commission’s budget, we’re putting $2 million toward construction of the Hooper Detox Center and additional funds toward the construction of the joint city-county mental health crisis center.

In the face of deepening county and state budget shortfalls, the City of Portland is going to have to find ways to fill the gaps created by other jurisdictions. When a person in our city is on the streets and needs services, they’re not saying to themselves, “I wish the county better funded these services.” They’re saying, “Who can I turn to for help?” So, I’ll continue to push for better funding for services for those most at-need, but I’m also committed to getting other jurisdictions — neighboring counties like Washington County and cities in our region — to increase their financial commitment to these services.

S.R.: You called this a recovery budget— what do you mean by that and what’s the forecast for Portlanders in the years to come?

S.A.: A recovery budget means that we’re not just helping people day-by-day, but that we’re funding the programs and services for people to make long-term improvements in their lives. So, for example, the Police Bureau’s Prostitution Coordination Team is about enforcing laws to curb prostitution. But it’s also coupled with a contract with LifeWorks Northwest, an amazing organization that helps women transition from lives in the sex trade to safer, healthier lives and livelihoods in the community. And I’ve continued to fund economic development efforts that help small businesses get access to start-up capital and storefront improvement dollars. At my direction, the PDC made administrative cuts that transferred $4 million toward economic development front-line programs.

The National League of Cities released a report last year that showed that cities trail the national economy by two years. And we know from experience that Portland tends to trail the nation in economic trends as a general rule. So when you put these two facts together, it’s evident that Portland will be in a tough economic climate for at least another year to 18 months. When I began assembling the budget for next year, I warned all the City’s bureau directors that next year was going to involve real cuts. And I also directed bureaus to make mid-year cuts to their budget this year. I am fairly certain we’ll be in the same position next year, having to make cuts and plan for ongoing cuts. Even last year, during my first budget as mayor, I directed bureaus to make mid-year cuts and cuts to their proposed budgets.

Fortunately, I work with some of the brightest and most talented financial planners in public service anywhere, and we’ve stood strong on not touching the City’s reserves, not increasing taxes, and this year, not issuing any cost-of-living pay increases for city employees. Compared with other cities that have raided their reserves and still faced massive lay-offs, Portland is in a stronger and more sound fiscal position.

S.R.: You grew up in poverty. How do you think that has affected your interest in or support for anti-poverty programs, such as employment and housing opportunities for low-income people?

S.A.: Well, I am pretty sure I can say my family wouldn’t have made it without some public-sector help at key moments in our lives. My mom raised us while working and putting herself through school. Her commitment to getting educated and pushing us to get good educations was absolutely fundamental to our survival and success. It’s probably fair to say that, because of her, I am so committed to improving Portland-area education for all, as the best way to deliver long-term equity and prosperity in our city. And I do believe that the public sector plays an important role in helping people find a way up and out of poverty and hunger. It saddens me that Oregon is one of the highest hunger-rate states in the nation, and that Portland sees that problem, too. With all the great talent, good people and creative energy in this City, there is no excuse for these problems not getting solved. And there are many great non-profits and community-minded businesses that are doing their part to help. That’s where I see the real potential — for me and the public sector to create incentives, bring these leaders together, and bridge the gaps so that the entrepreneurs in the private and non-government organization sectors can be even more successful.

S.R.: Hinging so much of our affordable housing funding on private development— with urban renewal districts, and the set-aside. We now look ahead and see that tax increment financing (TIF) is forecasted to decline from $70 million in 2010-11 to $26.1 million in 2011-12, and $16.4 million in 2012-13. Have we been duped by thinking the private market could sustain our affordable housing needs? Is a housing levy a realistic vision for filling the gap?

S.A.: I think what we’re seeing in the private real estate market matches what’s happening globally. The housing and mortgage busts have devastated our economy nationally, and Portland is no different. We’re seeing 30 to 40 percent unemployment in the construction industries and related trades. These are depression-era rates of unemployment. I can’t say when that private market will return, but when it does, we should see TIF funding return with it. At the end of the day, urban renewal funding is one of the only truly effective tools we as a city have for generating real, sustained economic development. It’s not perfect by any means. But it is effective and proven, and we will continue to find strategic ways to leverage that money and the affordable-housing set-asides that are part of the overall strategy.

S.R.: You mentioned in your State of the City address that “tragically our communities of color have faced the vicious winds of poverty and underemployment and disparity of opportunity for decades.” And here we are in a situation where the minority ownership programs are facing cuts in funding. Are we as a city saying one thing and doing another?

S.A.: The Portland City Council is more focused on issues of equity and equal opportunity than we’ve been, I dare say, ever. I included equity in my State of the City Address because it’s been talked around instead of about, for too long. I include equity as a core organizing principal of the Portland Plan because we can’t create the city we all want without talking about those who’ve historically not had access to the Portland “good life.” And, even in the face of budget cuts, we’re funding programs that work, that give access to capital. We may not be able to fund at the levels we have in the past few years, during stronger economic times, and so every bureau and program has been subject to some level of cutback. But we’re still funding the chambers of commerce and finding innovative ways to fund the economic opportunity initiative in a leaner way.

To give you some context, in FY 2009-10, $5,318,165 was budgeted for economic opportunity funding across all sources (General Fund, Community Development Block Grant, and stimulus). In this coming year’s budget, we’re still committing $5,193,644 from a variety of sources.

S.R.: You’ve spoken about your tenuous high school career that could have gone a different way. So now you’re looking over numbers that show that less than 65 percent of our 8th graders were graduating from our high schools in four years. And we know that stats show that this is higher among the Latino population. There are several programs underway to engage high-risk students. Are we getting the results we want?

S.A.: Yes, but it’s not good enough. The drop-out rate is alarming, and even more so for communities of color. And my education strategy recognizes that and is bringing together the school districts, the county, NGO’s like Worksystems Inc, and leaders in the private sector to deliver better results. Last year, we launched the Summer Youth Corps, now this year Summer Youth Connect. Together with a number of organizations, we’re bringing a very strategic, data-driven approach to keeping kids on track or getting them back on track, and showing them the opportunities ahead. Part of that is about credit-recovery opportunities and summer employment for youth. Part is getting businesses to step up and host site visits and career visits, so these kids can see the world of opportunities ahead of them if they stay in school and push themselves. And a large part of it is knowing which kids are most at risk of dropping out and catching them before they do.

S.R.: (Israel) I did not graduate high school. Without the proper mentors, and community programs like Street Roots, I very easily could have gone down a path of self-destruction. What should our cities approach be for those who have already slipped through the cracks?

S.A.: Well, that’s a real challenge. Certainly, the most effective thing to do is to catch them before they do slip through the cracks. We know, based on Gates Foundation research, that kids who are behind in their course credits going into ninth grade are much more likely to drop out or not complete high school. So my education cabinet’s focus includes supporting Ninth Grade Counts, a program to help kids recover course credits and get back on track. For those kids who’ve already dropped out, Portland has a network of mentoring and outreach organizations that do inspiring and vital work. Part of what I do is really push our region’s business leaders to find ways to support these causes — by getting involved with Summer Youth Connect, encouraging employees to volunteer, and donating time and money.

S.R.: You met with President Obama earlier this year. What did you impart upon him that Portland needed?

S.A.: That meeting between a group of city mayors and President Obama was an incredible experience, in part because of how straightforward mayors were with the President about the economic difficulties they were facing. We discussed the need for recovery dollars and federal support. And we also shared what we were doing locally to drive recovery. In many ways, a lot of these cities look to what Portland is doing — around sustainability as a competitive advantage in the marketplace — and they want to emulate our work. U.S. Department of Transportation head Ray LaHood routinely praises Portland’s leadership on streetcar and transit-oriented development. And the head of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Shawn Donovan, came to Portland this year to announce the creation of the new Office of Livable Communities. And we continue to be a national model with our program, Clean Energy Works Portland, which brings private sector financing and utility companies together to remove the financing barrier to homeowners making energy efficiency retrofits to their home. It was the Clean Energy Works model that helped Oregon secure $20 million in recovery (stimulus) funding (the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s Energy Efficiency Community Block Grant) to scale up our energy efficiency industry and create jobs.

S.R.: For more than a decade downtown business interests and advocates for the homeless have been at odds. Knowing that both want the same things — to get people off the streets, but they have very different fundamental approaches to how this should be done. More so, both of these interests drive how the public views homelessness, undercutting the need for real movement building, services and other innovative approaches citywide. How can we be more effective?

S.A.: You’re right that both sides want the same thing. And it’s that agreement on the problem that will show the path forward. I bring “opposing” sides together on a variety of issues, and it always take a lot of time and effort, but it’s the only way to create a viable, long-term approach. The round-table stakeholder meetings we held with businesses, homeless advocates, service providers and interested residents on the Sidewalk Management Plan was an example of that.

Unfortunately, a recession-hammered economy takes its toll on issues of homelessness even more severely. Not only are more people losing their homes, but cities and counties are seeing decreased revenues, which in turn reduce the amount of funding available for programs and services to help. It’s a very challenging situation, and it requires being creative and innovative, as well as compassionate, to find workable solutions.

And finally, it takes recognizing that none of these issues is in isolation. Homelessness is an economic problem, a mental-heath and public health issue, a public safety issue and a humanitarian issue. The public sector can’t fix all these problems, but we can bring people together and we can find ways to be a catalyst for change.

S.R.: When you look at how local media effects local politics, how does Street Roots and other community media fit into that picture from the perspective as someone who is leading our city?

S.A.: I think that Street Roots and other community media outlets play a fundamental role in our city — telling stories that don’t appear in the mainstream media, and reaching audiences that don’t tune into mainstream media. Portland is fortunate to have a vibrant media landscape, especially for a city our size. Between the alternative press and the community papers and papers of communities of color, there are many good discussions going on about what our city faces. All I can say is that I encourage those publications to get and stay involved in the issues facing our city as a whole. We’re working on the Portland Plan, the roadmap for the next 25 years of the city, and we need everyone’s voice to shape that plan. We’re trying to build a strong, sustainable economy for all Portlanders, and we need more people involved. Community media is absolutely vital for the work that needs to be done.

Photo by Ken Hawkins

One response to “Mayor Sam Adams talks with Street Roots

  1. Pingback: Writing of late… « Rocket Poetry

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