Mayor, council should reckon on helping county

From the Oregonian editorial board, September 07, 2011

You need not be a psychiatric nurse to grasp that Portland, right now, could be facing a potential mental health disaster. The city and Multnomah County must work together to avert it, and fend off the danger well into next year.

As it happens, city Commissioner Amanda Fritz is a psychiatric RN. And she’s been quick to size up the peril. The county’s nearly $12 million cut in funding from the state is not just the county’s problem, she has said, but the city’s problem, too.

A 1983 agreement known as Resolution A delineates the city’s and county’s respective roles. The city does mostly urban services while the county supports social programs. But the two governments converge in the realm of public safety. That’s exactly what this giant cut threatens.

When you talk about the city and county, it’s easy to forget you’re mostly talking about the same place, and the same people. More than 80 percent of the county’s residents live in Portland. So when the state of Oregon inflicts devastating cuts on county services, it’s no exaggeration to say that Portland suffers. The distinction between the agencies blurs.

For that reason, Mayor Sam Adams and the City Council need to develop an action plan ASAP to back up and bolster the county, to the extent that the county needs bolstering. As we speak, the county is trying to figure out how to do the least amount of harm to the fewest number of people.

The Oregon Legislature is responsible for some of this damage. Its decision to allocate state funds to counties based on population, instead of their actual needs, problems and caseloads, punishes Multnomah County — and shortchanges prevention. The Legislature needs to revisit this.

In the meantime, the City Council needs to step up. By comparison with the county, the city is in robust health.

The city has a general fund reserve of $49 million and has not had to touch it during the Great Recession. Quite properly, the county, too, has been preparing for this dire moment and has already settled on some strategies to shore up its mental health services for this year. But it will almost certainly need help to get through next year.

This, in any case, is not to argue for a simple transfer of cash, from which the city walks away empty-handed. This is to argue for an adroit exchange, possibly involving property, of the sort that former Mayor Vera Katz sometimes engineered to help the city’s school districts. Adams knows how to do this; as Katz’s chief of staff, he put some of these deals together.

To be sure, this is no argument for profligacy either, since the city has its own financial needs. But the county’s cuts will likely have to be reckoned with far into the future. What the City Council fails to do for the county, it fails to do for the city, and for some of the most defenseless people in Portland.