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Mayor Hales' push for innovation at City Hall gets council nod

As Mayor Charlie Hales puts it, local government bureaucrats often are afraid to take risks by doing things differently, in contrast to their private sector counterparts.

To spur more creative thinking at City Hall, Hales put $1 million into his first city budget for an Innovation Fund, and invited city bureau managers to submit ideas to spend a piece of the money.

On Wednesday, the Portland City Council approved the first six projects to share that money, chosen from among 24 put forth by city managers and selected by a five-person Innovation Task Force empaneled by Hales.

The winners:

• Portland Fire & Rescue: $108,000 to train citizens in CPR and buy PulsePoint, a smartphone app that notifies citizen volunteers that a cardiac arrest has occurred near them, and alerts them to the nearest defibrillator.

• Revenue Bureau: $295,000 to set up direct exchange of taxpayer information with the IRS, making it easier to file the Portland Business License Tax, Multnomah County Business Income Tax and the new Arts Tax forms. The city figures it could raise general fund revenues by $780,000 to $2.3 million a year, plus more for Multnomah County and the Arts Tax, by identifying taxpayers who should have filed taxes or filed them incorrectly.

•Portland Bureau of Transportation: $250,000 to set up a web-based app to track and map all city agencies’ capital improvement and maintenance plans. The city hopes to enlist cooperation of private utilities, so when one entity needs to tear up a street, for example, it could be coordinated better with others. PBOT Director Leah Treat brought the idea from her former job in Chicago. “She said the city saves million of dollars,” said City Commissioner Steve Novick, “and I have no doubt that the private utilities did as well.”

• Portland Housing Bureau: $48,000 to develop software to share data such as income eligibility and demographics between bureau and housing providers.

• Portland Development Commission: $80,000 to create an Early Adopter program, so city bureaus can be a “living laboratory” and early adopter of locally created tech products and services. PDC promised to match that amount of money.

• Bureau of Planning and Sustainability: $90,000 to buy new detailed maps of landslide risks, which are produced by Light Detecting and Ranging (LiDAR) data, an airplane-based sensor using infrared laser light.

Tom Simpson, a member of the Innovation Task Force and government affairs director for Standard Insurance, said the proposals submitted by bureau managers have the potential to cut city costs and improve services. “However, very few of the proposals were truly innovative in nature,” Simpson said.

Some of the proposals made so much sense that task force members wondered why city bureaus weren’t just enacting them, he said. “They have the capacity and the resources and they should just do it.”

Commissioner Amanda Fritz questioned spending money for the CPR/PulsePoint project. “Why is this a priority item for us to spend $100,000 on?” she asked.

Kayse Jama, the executive director of the Center for Intercultural Organizing and another Innovation Task Force member, said he liked that proposal because it combines new infrastructure and mobilizing citizen volunteers in a new way.

Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue has been using the app, reportedly resulting in three or four successful citizen interventions so far to aid people undergoing cardiac arrest. The city hopes that Gresham will adopt the system next.

Fritz also questioned a seventh proposal on the list submitted to the council, a $35,000 project to develop a paid parking system using variable pricing in the South Waterfront area. Fritz wondered why the city chose one of its most affluent neighborhoods to test that new way of paying for parking, rather than other neighborhoods.

Hales explained that South Waterfront is the most viable place where the concept might prove useful to maximize city revenues.

But Hales also acknowledged that he added that item to the list “at the last minute,” and it was the only one of the list that hadn’t won the blessing of the Innovation Task Force. (That may explain why the mayor’s staff balked at releasing the task force recommendations when requested twice by the Portland Tribune.)

Hales agreed to pull the item from the list, and bring it back to the council later for consideration.

The six approved projects come close to totaling $1 million, which Simpson said was coincidental.

It’s not clear if the Innovation Fund has enough support to become an annual item funded by the city. But Hales, who called the program’s rollout an “imperfect success,” hopes it will.

In the spectrum of ideas between innovative and same-old, same-old, Hales said, “there’s a place in-between which may be called government working smarter,” he said. “We want to tell managers we want you to try something new.”

Steve Law can reached at 503-546-5139 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Twitter: @SteveLawTrib