In a speech provided to a packed City Council chambers on January 3rd, newly sworn-in mayor Charlie Hales warned of difficult fiscal choices that would be made in the weeks and months ahead. The need to put Portland's financial house in order--"to do more with less"--was identified as the top priority. Included in Hales' 17-minute speech was a request to city Bureaus for budgets to be submitted with ten-percent cuts by the first week of February. "It's a discipline that these circumstances require," Hales explained. In an effort to lead by example, Hales appointed a staff roughly half the size of his predecessor's, resulting in savings of nearly $600,000.
However, this past week saw news of Hales' follow-up cost-cutting efforts--and the first with a direct impact on program funding support provided by the city. The decision made by the Hales administration to cut finding for $395,000 in contracts to Worksystems Inc. for work training programs that targets at-risk youth--contracts that had been previously arranged, but not passed, by former Mayor Sam Adams--has been met with near-universal criticism. The basis for these responses stem from Hales' voicing support for these programs as a mayoral candidate, only to find these programs the first to be placed on the chopping block, victims of economic circumstance. And considering the fact that 80 percent of the youth that receive services from Worksystems Inc. are African-American, it makes the commitment by the Mayor's Office to address equity issues ring hollow.
It's only the first few weeks of the Hales administration, but to say that the optics of these funding cuts are less than ideal would be putting it mildly.
In the initial coverage of these funding cuts by The Oregonian, Worksystem's executive director Andrew McGough struck a pragmatic tone:
"It's disappointing," McGough said. "But hey, what can you say? If you don't have the money, you don't have the money. But I'm confident that the mayor sees the value in this stuff. He may not have the resources at his disposal right now, but I'm pretty confident he's going to work with us."
When reached for further comment, McGough said he had "no other choice" than to be pragmatic. "I have to take the Mayor at his word," explains McGough. "The city is facing a difficult financial situation, and [the funding cuts] were tough choices for the Mayor to make. I'm sure we won't be alone with what will be cut."
The programs in question--Worksystem's Summer Youth Connect and Summer Works--provide paid internships for at-risk youth to develop the skills and connections necessary to find and keep jobs. "Research shows that kids who work while in school, stay in school," McGough points out. "They make more money over their life, use social services less, commit fewer crimes. We believe that these are programs that provide quite a lot of bang for the buck."
Besides the fiscal warnings of his ceremonial speech, Hales also counseled a "back to basics" approach to manage the city's budget, with a focus on providing basic services. It can be argued that providing nearly $400,000 in youth internship opportunities may fall outside the scope of the city's basic services, but this also seems like a small amount of an investment to make while addressing a number of Portland's pressing issues. Particularly when unemployment rates of African-American youth range upwards of 60 percent, a level that McGough calls "extraordinarily, tragically high."
In the release that accompanied the decision to withhold funding for these contracts, Hales' Chief of Staff Gail Shibley asserted that Mayor Hales understood the value of summer internships for at-risk youth and and that these decisions reflect the fiscal reality faced by the City of Portland. "Every dollar of general fund saved today can go towards the $25 million hole the city faces," Shibley wrote. Certainly, it is the responsibility of elected officials to be prudent with the public's funds, and any efforts to close a funding gap of this size should be lauded. But it's hard to believe that enough $400,000 contracts can be found to make up this deficit, just as its hard to believe that the first fat to get cut from the City's general fund is program support for at-risk African-American youth.
To be clear, the continued operations of Worksystems Inc. are marginally impacted by these funding cuts. Worksystems is a large non-profit organization, with an operating budget of $18 million provided through federal funding, private sector support, and competitive grants. The funds withheld by the city amount to a very small percentage, and the programs earmarked for these funds will continue to operate despite the reduced funding provided by the City of Portland. "I don't want to understate the support provided by any of our partners," says McGough. "Any contribution is greatly appreciated. But the funding provided by the city for the Summer Works program amounted to an extra 100 internships. Instead of 400, we could have 500. The funding is lost for Summer Youth Connect is lost, but we re-double our efforts to find other sources of funding. The problem is we could serve 1000 kids and we know that there are 20,000 kids that could be eligible for these programs." [Note: In follow-up information provided by McGough, more than 1850 youths participated in Summer Youth Connect program in 2012, including 315 Summer Works internships.]
I would wager that there are a large number of Team Jefferson supporters who are currently engaging in a bit of Schadenfreudian "I told you so" discussion in response to this past week's news. In fact, I know there are. But I would caution those that take such a stance. If their preferred candidate was currently in the Mayor's Office, the challenges posed by the City's stark fiscal reality would still exist and would not, magically, disappear based solely due to an alternative outcome on Election Night. A hypothetical Mayor Jefferson Smith would instead be the one criticized for making unpopular funding decisions. As always, it is easy to be critical of those making the tough decisions when you're not in a position to make these decisions.
To close, whenever I hear about the tough fiscal decisions that need to be made, I come to an analogy--and this might be a poor one--of how we "need to take our medicine." And not the sweet, cherry-flavored stuff, mind you, but the castor oil that immediately makes you want to vomit. And there are a couple songs that come to mind in regards to the subject of taking medicine. The first is the White Stripes with "Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine" a typical jangly, noisy, thrash rock exercise in which Jack White practically berates the subject to ignore all concerns and just take what's good for 'em. And then, of course, there's the ever popular "A Spoonful of Sugar" from the classic Disney film Mary Poppins, in which everyone's favorite English nanny advises that just the right touch of sweetness helps make the unpalatable be consumed.
If indeed, these upcoming tough financial decisions are going to be the "medicine" taken by Portland voters and taxpayers, here is a bit of unsolicited advice for the Hales administration: Try a little bit more Mary Poppins, and a little less Jack White.
Note: Requests made for comment from the Hales administration were not responded.