Julia Shumway

(Oregon Capital Chronicle) PORTLAND – Gov. Tina Kotek and members of her Portland Central City Task Force say the city needs more police officers on the ground, tax breaks for businesses and a ban on public drug use.

Kotek and members of the task force, which has met privately since August, presented their recommendations at Monday’s annual Oregon Leadership Summit, an annual gathering of business leaders and public officials at the Moda Center.

Recommendations to revitalize the state’s struggling largest city range from the immediate – picking up trash – to the long-term: building 20,000 homes in downtown Portland by 2035. They’re an attempt to address downtown Portland’s myriad issues, including homelessness and public drug use, that have created difficult conditions for businesses and residents and caused the city’s national image to plummet.

“Sometimes turning on the TV, looking at billboards around the city or checking out new stories is like reading an obituary of Portland written by people who never truly knew it at its best,” Kotek said. “The truth is, Portland was never Portlandia.”

While the efforts are focused on one city, Kotek said Portland’s success or failure matters across the state. She has visited 35 of 36 Oregon counties on her year-long listening tour, and in every part of the state she heard that Portland is Oregon’s economic engine, she said.

“As Portland goes, the state goes. And I think leaders from around the state understand that,” said Dutch Bros CEO Joth Ricci, who hosted the event.

The task force includes Kotek, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Multnomah County chair Jessica Vega Pederson, along with more than three dozen other elected officials and business and nonprofit leaders. It has met three times behind closed doors.

Some of its recommendations, including banning public drug use, will require legislative approval. Others will require lawmakers to open the state’s coffers: The Oregon Department of Transportation will ask for up to $20 million to clean up trash and graffiti on state property during the next year and a half.

And they’ll require cooperation from the state, Multnomah County and the city of Portland, something that’s been difficult in the past.

“We all want the same thing,” Wheeler said. “We want this city and this state to recover and the only way we can do it successfully is through collaboration. We have to work together because nobody individually holds the key to success.”

Vega Pederson described the recommendations as “very provisional,” noting that many task force members only saw the full list a few days ago. The county, city and others will consider which recommendations to implement and how to do so, she said.

Chief among the recommendations is a proposal that the state, the county and the city each declare a 90-day fentanyl emergency and establish a command center, led by the state, to triage the crisis. The state would coordinate efforts by law enforcement, public health professionals, outreach workers and others.

Kotek directed Oregon State Police in September to do more to crack down on fentanyl dealers in downtown Portland, and the agency has had a larger presence in the area since. The task force called for continuing that increased state police presence into 2024.

The task force also recommended having more city park rangers in downtown parks through April. And it urged the state board in charge of licensing police officers to ensure new Portland officers get the training they need.

At the legislative level, top Democrats are working on bills for the 2024 legislative session to amend the state’s voter-approved drug decriminalization law, Measure 110, and address the state’s addiction crisis. As part of those efforts, the task force urged the Legislature to ban public drug use. The city of Portland passed a ban in September contingent on state action.

Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton, said the Legislature will consider that issue, as well as legislation making it easier for prosecutors to take on drug dealers. The Oregon Supreme Court ruled in 2021 that simply possessing large amounts of drugs isn’t enough to prove someone plans to sell those drugs, making it harder to prosecute dealers.

Other recommendations centered around homelessness. Approximately 7,500 people are homeless in the Portland metro area, according to the 2023 Point in Time Count, out of 18,000 statewide, and hundreds of people sleep unsheltered in downtown Portland each night. The task force called for expanding daytime services, including more publicly available bathrooms and showers, paid for in part by a $3 million commitment from Multnomah County.

Additionally, the task force recommended adding more shelter beds. Efforts are underway to add at least 350 new shelter spaces, including 50 standalone pods.

The group also called for a three-year moratorium on new local fees and taxes and creating a tax advisory group to provide targeted tax breaks. One option proposed by the group would be an expansion of a new city tax credit which allowed downtown businesses with at least 15 employees to receive a one-time credit of up to $250,000, split over four years, on their business license tax.

Wheeler said the city is also creating two new tax increment financing districts, including one in downtown. The districts, a common tool for economic development in cities, allow governments to use expected future increases in tax revenue tied to public improvements to pay for those improvements.

Portland has the highest combined state and local income tax in the nation, said task force member Charles Wilhoite, managing director of Willamette Management. Neighboring Vancouver, Washington, has no income tax, and Portlanders fleeing Multnomah County cost the county $1 billion in income, he said.

Portland-based businesses, including Columbia Sportswear and Nike, will also pay for trash cleanup, said Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle. Boyle, who described himself as having an “unhealthy obsession with trash,” said his company has donated to cleaning up litter and graffiti along a section of Interstate 405 driven by 100,000 cars daily, and he’ll urge other business owners and philanthropists to help pay.

Cleaning I-405 will cost about $40,000 to $45,000 for litter removal each month and $12,000 for graffiti removal, according to the task force. If the program is successful on that road, the committee would recommend expanding it to other roads.

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