Portland, a city of 635,000 that’s under the ever-looming threat of a massive earthquake along the Cascadia subduction zone, has just one city employee solely dedicated to earthquake preparedness. But after the city’s annual budget planning process, that staffing number may drop to zero.
Ernie Jones oversaw Portland Bureau of Emergency Management’s relatively new earthquake preparedness program from 2015 until he retired last week. At a Tuesday budget meeting before Portland City Council, PBEM Director Shad Ahmed said Jones might not be replaced.
Facing an estimated revenue shortfall of $2 million for the coming fiscal year, Mayor Ted Wheeler ordered nearly all bureaus to suggest ways to cut their annual budgets by 5%. Doing so would free up an estimated $11.9 million in General Fund discretionary dollars, a pot of money that can be used on any city services or administrative costs.
Ahmed has proposed eliminating more than 30% of its 19-person staff to meet the mayor’s cut requirements. That includes eliminating Jones’ role.
“This one particular position is actually the city’s only dedicated position to earthquake preparedness that we have,” Ahmed told council. “We would lose that position.”
This position oversees the city’s Basic Earthquake Emergency Communication Node, or BEECN (pronounced “beacon”), program, which Jones helped build in 2015. These are 50 storage boxes distributed across the city – in parks, school fields, church parking lots, and other locations – that contain battery-powered radios, emergency medical supplies, and other safety gear. In the event of an earthquake, assigned city staff and volunteers will report to these boxes to distribute supplies to neighbors and make emergency calls if phone lines are damaged.
Jones was responsible for keeping the BEECNs stocked and training volunteers on how to operate their radios during an emergency.
To illustrate the impact of losing this position, Ahmed pointed to the fallout of the 2023 wildfires in Maui, Hawaii, where residents said they had few ways to call for help.
“People were very concerned that in the immediate aftermath they had no cell phone service, there was no radio communications, there was no 911,” Ahmed said during a budget briefing Tuesday morning. “This position would be specialized and able to plan for and help us mitigate those types of scenarios. So that’s a big loss for us.”
Earthquake preparedness is one of several programs at risk of cuts in the emergency management bureau. Ahmed also suggested cutting the city’s public alert program, which sends out text messages and calls to warn Portlanders about potential safety threats, like earthquakes, fires, severe weather, or other disasters. He also proposed eliminating staff who work to plan and operate emergency severe weather shelters in coordination with Multnomah County. The city and county received criticism for these shelters already being understaffed during the recent ice storm.
No members of city council commented on these potential cuts during the Tuesday hearing.
It’s not uncommon for city bureau directors to suggest cutting seemingly critical programs during budget hearings. Often, when pressed to make cuts during a financial downturn, bureaus put beloved programs on the chopping block — making it city commissioners’ responsibility to find money elsewhere to avoid these reductions and save political face.
This trend could explain the proposal from Portland Fire & Rescue to pull $3 million from the budget for Portland Street Response, a mental health first response program. After hearing public outcry about the suggested cut, City Commissioner Carmen Rubio floated a proposal Tuesday to use $3 million in earned interest collected from the Portland Clear Energy Fund tax to fill that budget gap.
A December revenue forecast from the City Budget Office estimates the city having a $730.8 million general fund budget to spend on parks, police, and other city bureaus in the coming fiscal year, which begins on July 1.
The proposals are far from final. Bureaus are still in the process of collecting feedback from City Council on ways to cut spending before submitting their proposed budgets late next week. Mayor Ted Wheeler will submit his final proposed budget in early May, after the city holds a series of public budget hearings. City Council is expected to finalize the budget in June.