Portland City Council votes to end funding for five community recreation facilities


Hans Bernard, a recreation leader at the Southwest Community Center, was one of a handful of workers testifying to City Council May 22 against a proposal to close recreation centers and lay off over 50 employees.

By Don McIntosh

Only one member of Portland City Council tried to halt the layoff of 56 47 recreation center workers and the closure or privatization of five community recreation centers: Jo Ann Hardesty. Allying with residents who use the rec centers, Laborers Local 483 had campaigned hard against its members’ layoffs through two months of packed and emotional budget hearings. But in the end, two amendments Hardesty proposed that would have lessened the cuts failed by 4 to 1 in a May 23 vote.

City bureau budgets can be complicated, but the underlying issue isn’t hard to understand. Two years ago—after a decade-long campaign by Local 483—Portland City Council agreed to do right by its low-wage “permatemp” recreation center workers. To settle a union grievance that it lost at arbitration, the City made those workers permanent, recognized their union, raised pay to $15 an hour, and offered benefits for those working full time. The catch: City Council never gave the Parks Bureau enough of a budget bump to be able to pay for those increased compensation costs.

This year, the price tag to continue current services at the new compensation levels was $6.3 million more than what the mayor proposed for the bureau. The mayor sought no new general fund revenue, but instead proposed to balance the budget by laying off employees and closing rec centers.

Hardesty floated several ideas to stop some of the layoffs. One proposed amendment would have frozen cost-of-living raises for one year for 1,305 high-paid non-union employees — those making over $80,000 a year. That would have saved $1.8 million — enough to halt about 35 parks layoffs. Another proposal would have freed up $1.6 million for parks by eliminating funding for a new body camera pilot program at the Portland Police Bureau. Neither proposed amendment got any support.

At the final hearing, a crowd of rec center workers and users filled council chambers, the second floor balcony and two overflow rooms.

Commissioner Nick Fish, who Mayor Wheeler put in charge of Parks and Recreation last September, wrung his hands as the city clerk called the roll. First he praised Hardesty and said workers are the cause of his life. Then he voted against the amendments that would have stopped the layoffs in his bureau. Fish said it would be inequitable to withhold cost-of-living increases from non-union employees. But he repeatedly pledged to help laid off employees find other jobs at the City.

Local 483 never made an issue of it during its campaign, but the rec center layoffs and closures come just after Fish increased the Parks Bureau director salary by $29,000. Adena Long, who started in February, gets $215,000 a year plus benefits; her predecessor Mike Abbate was paid $186,000 after seven years in the role.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s budget also found $200,000 $50,000 to help a private group pay for a study to see whether a water taxi service between Vancouver and downtown Portland is feasible.

The rec center layoffs will begin July 1. Sellwood Community Center, which provides preschool programs, will close in September, not July 1, because parents have already paid for summer programs there. Columbia Pool is slated to close July 2020. The City will also end staffing for programming at Laurelhurst Dance Studio, Hillside Community Center and Fulton Park Community Center. The bureau offered that they could later reopen if non-profits step up to manage those facilities and offer programs at no cost to the city.


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