Last December, Mayor Ted Wheeler instructed bureau directors to reduce budgets by five percent for the upcoming fiscal year. Shortfalls in revenue over the previous year require a cutback in City spending. The resulting budget proposal from Portland Fire & Rescue removes services that would impact Fire Station 19 in Montavilla. Although the proposal argues against making those changes, it achieves the Mayor’s cost savings goal.
A proposed service reduction in the 2021-2022 budget would eliminate four Rapid Response Vehicles (RRV). Portland Fire & Rescue added the RRV units to some fire stations several years ago to reduce response time and lessen the need to send out four-person fire engine crews to none-fire emergencies. An RRV is an SUV-style truck containing a two-person team. They dispatch quickly to incidents and often resolve calls without the need for additional firefighting equipment. The program has reduced response time and lowered the operational costs for Portland Fire & Rescue.
Portland has four RRV teams active in the City. Each unit requires 4 to 6.5 Full-time employees to operate. One of those RRV units is attached to Fire Station 19, located on E Burnside Street at NE 73rd. Stations 11, 23, and 31 house the other Portland RRV units. RRV crews at Station 19 responded to 3,129 incidents in 2020. Eliminating the RRV from Montavilla would substantially increase the workload on Engine 19, which is already the third busiest engine in Portland.
Although the RRVs are valued additions to Portland Fire & Rescue’s response team, some services they provide overlap with the new Portland Street Response program. Most services do not overlap, but that new program could replace some of RRV’s services. Portland Street Response is early in its development and does not cover the same area that RRV units currently serve. Consequentially, Portland Fire & Rescue’s Budget Advisory Committee recommends the restoration of RRV funding in the 2021-2022 budget instead of achieving the five-percent budget reduction. Besides keeping the RRVs, this budget promotes expanding the Portland Street Response program to 10 teams from the two already funded.
The City’s annual budget process often seeks cost reduction opportunities and requires an earnest examination of department spending. The proposed reduction of services meets the Mayor’s target while offering the lowest performance impact possible, but with an expected service degradation.
In reviewing the Portland Fire & Rescue’s proposal, the City Budget Office (CBO) is not recommending reductions to frontline services provided by RRV units. “RRVs are a relatively costeffective strategy for addressing lower acuity calls and are able to respond more quickly to more serious emergencies while other apparatus are still in route.”
Despite the favorable outlook on the RRV program, the CBO examined a possible reduction in hours that could provide some cost savings while avoiding the program’s shutdown. The CBO report proposes a peak staffing model as an alternative. That would reduce RRV schedules to a 10-hour daily shift, cutting the number of full-time employees needed.
Over the next month, Portland’s budget will receive input from City Council work sessions and community comments. During this time, city leaders will have to balance the budgetary shortfall against the need to provide essential services.
People interested in commenting on the budget will have an opportunity on Wednesday, May 5th, from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm. Sign-up before 4:00 pm on May 4th to contribute your comments at the Mayor’s Proposed Budget Hearing. There are also several dates before May 5th to listen and comment on budget matters. See the Budget Events website for details.