Will mounted patrol ride off into the sunset?
Nonprofit group takes to TV to buck Novick plan to cut police horse unit
Supporters of the Portland Police Mounted Patrol are pushing back against two developments that threaten the future of the horse unit.
First, Commissioner Steven Novick proposed eliminating the unit in next year's budget.
Then the Portland Development Commission declared the stable area at Centennial Mills unsafe, forcing the horses to be relocated to a farm in Aurora. The unit has been housed at the aging former flour mill on Northwest Naito Parkway and Ninth Avenue since the PDC bought it in 2001.
The one-two punch came as a surprise to the Friends of the Mounted Patrol, a nonprofit organization that thought it had struck a deal with the City Council that guaranteed the unit would continue at least through the next fiscal year.
When the council considered eliminating the unit in the current budget, the Friends' group promised to raise $400,000 to keep it going over the next two years $200,000 each year. Mayor Charlie Hales included the agreement in the 2013-14 budget summary his office released after the council approved it.
The Friends' group had raised the first $200,000 and was in the process of transferring it to the city when Novick made his proposal in a Feb. 3 memo to the other council members.
"We didn't know anything about Commissioner Novick's proposal and the problems with Centennial Mills before they were announced. It's put us in a holding pattern until we can meet with him and Mayor Hales and learn more about what they're thinking," says Bob Ball, a real estate developer and reserve Portland police officer who serves on the Friends' board of directors.
Ball says he was caught off guard by Novick's proposal because of the council agreement.
"I testified before the council and thanked them for agreeing to continue the unit for two years, and nobody said they weren't agreeing to anything at that time," Ball says.
Novick insists there was never any promise made by the council, however. He says the agreement was something Hales sprung on them.
"The mayor might have made such an agreement, but I didn't agree to any such thing," Novick says. "All of us assumed the mounted patrol was gone. Then suddenly the mayor announced there was more money and he wanted to use some of it for the mounted patrol."
Hales agrees with Ball that the council made a two-year agreement with the Friends' group when it approved the current budget.
"It was absolutely a promise," says Hales spokesman Dana Haynes.
In the meantime, the Friends' group is conducting an online survey on the future of the unit on its website. By coincidence, the survey corresponds with TV ads the group is running on NBC during the Olympics to help raise the second $200,000. The ad campaign was planned before Novick made his proposal.
The problem with Centennial Mills is something that might be solved in the near future, at least temporarily. The back half of the former warehouse where the stables are located is beginning to sag. It is held up by piers that are tilting toward the Willamette River. If it collapses, the roof could fall onto the stables.
"We decided the safest thing to do was stable the horses somewhere else until we can figure out want to do," says Mounted Patrol Sgt. Marty Schell.
Schell hopes the stables can be relocated to the front of the building, which is a separate, but adjoining former warehouse that currently houses the unit's office, a small exercise ring, and a staging area for preparing the horses to go out on patrol. Schell hopes the police bureau and the PDC can reach agreement and relocate the stables within 90 days.
But everyone knows the unit eventually will have to move out of Centennial Mills when it is redeveloped. One alternative location that has been studied is a vacant lot approximately two blocks south on Naito Parkway. It is large enough to house the unit's current facilities.
Ball says the Friends' group hopes to partner with the city to find and develop the next home for the unit, wherever it is.
"By working together, we can raise money and help reduce the city's cost," he says.
Horses serve purpose
The mounted patrol has eight horses, four officers, a sergeant, an equestrian trainer and two stable attendants. According to the Portland Police Bureau, it is projected to cost $795,000 this fiscal year. That's $68,000 less than the council-approved budget of $862,775. Some of the savings are likely to be tapped by the unanticipated boarding and potential renovation costs, however.
Portland police have used horses, off and on, since 1887. A sign posted at the Centennial Mills headquarters lists the benefits of mounted officers, including greater visibility that increases their crime prevention effectiveness, the ability of horses to respond quickly in congested areas, and their accessibility to residents, business owners and visitors.
The unit also is used for crowd control at protests and numerous recurring events, from the Rose Festival Fun Center to the Downtown Entertainment District weekends. And they appear at community festivals and parades.
"The mounted patrol is very popular and versatile. People love the horses. With all the problems cited in the U.S. Department of Justice settlement, why would the council want to get rid of a program that connects so well with the public," Ball asks.
Novick disagrees. He says the unit is ornamental and unpopular. As proof that the public is willing to eliminate the unit, he cites a SurveyUSA poll commissioned by KATU-TV in March 2013. It found that 52 percent of respondents would support eliminating the unit, while only 38 percent would oppose the elimination and 10 percent were unsure.
Ball counters that the poll was conducted when the council was facing a $25 million budget deficit and needed to eliminate programs. It cited the deficit and asked which cuts respondents would support. Other choices included closing seven fire stations, eliminating the school police, shutting off water to all 19 decorative fountains, closing Buckman Pool, or closing the Clark Center, which was described as "a 90-bed homeless center."
"That was an entirely different context. The council has an additional $9 million to spend this year," says Ball, who notes a recent online Oregonian poll that found more than 80 percent support for keeping the unit.
At the same time, the mounted patrol was the only choice most respondents were willing to eliminate in the SurveyUSA poll.
Ball says the Friends' group wants to work with the city in a private-public partnership to find a new home for the mounted patrol as soon as possible.
"If we work together, we can save money and come up with a new home that the public can also enjoy," Ball says.
Novick sharpens ax
The mounted patrol is not the only cut Novick wants to see in the Portland Police Bureau. His Feb. 3 memo also recommends eliminating the Drugs and Vice Division for a savings of $3.9 million. He calls it part of "the failed national 40-year effort to interrupt the supply of drugs."
And Novick says the bureau is top-heavy, claiming it has more than 30 command staff who supervise three people or fewer. He does not recommend a specific change or estimate potential savings, however.
The commissioner says he is proposing the cut to free up general fund dollars that can be spent on other programs. Novick notes that two of his bureaus will be requesting an additional $3.9 million next year. The Bureau of Transportation will seek $1 million for safety improvements to dangerous intersections, and the Bureau of Emergency Management will request $2.9 million to begin turning the former armory near Multnomah Village into the first emergency operations center on the west side of the city.
Although the council is projected to have an additional $9 million to spend next year, Novick says he expects all the requests from every bureau will easily exceed that amount.
"I recognize I am suggesting we eliminate jobs, which will have a grim impact on the families of the employees in question," according to the memo. "But the prospect of leaving the entire west side without the resources to respond to an earthquake or other disaster, and of more avoidable traffic deaths throughout the city, is even grimmer."
It is unusual for a commissioner to recommend cutting the budget of a bureau supervised by another council member. Although Hales is in charge of the police bureau, he is not upset by Novick's memo.
"We understand this is the dance of the budget," spokesman Haynes says. "All of the commissioners will be maneuvering for their bureaus. Steve just got out front first."
At the same time, Haynes says Hales will prepare his own recommended budget for the council to consider over the next few months. He would not say whether it would include any cuts to the Mounted Patrol. But Haynes' wife, Nancy, hosted a fundraiser for Friends of the Mounted Patrol last year.