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Portland Parks & Recreation wants voters to pass a levy to restart programs

Because facilities and programs have been shuttered for almost four months, Portland Parks & Recreation hasn't been able to generate revenue from fees.

PORTLAND, Oregon — Portland Parks & Recreation may be asking voters for a lot of money in November to help restart recreation and reopen facilities.

The parks bureau is planning to ask the Portland City Council to put an operational levy on the ballot in November 2020. 

Between May 27 and June 2, the parks bureau contracted with a research firm which surveyed hundreds of Portland voters to determine whether they would be more likely to support and pass a bond or a levy. 

Respondents leaned toward a levy, which is described as a "$44 million-per-year, five-year temporary operating levy to prevent ongoing reductions to Portland Parks & Recreation services and programs; including keeping neighborhood parks clean and green; and providing life-saving swim lessons, fitness, arts, senior programs, environmental education, and a summer playground program serving free lunches to children in need".

It would cost the average homeowner $130 per year, or about $11 per month.

City commissioners will take up the issue on July 22.

RELATED: 'Everything is on the table': City, county eyeing major cuts in pandemic-ravaged budget

In the beginning of March, Portland Parks & Recreation closed all community centers, pools and gyms, and cancelled programming in order to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Mayor Ted Wheeler and Parks Bureau Director Adena Long sent a letter to community members on Tuesday, explaining it will stay that way through the summer, and likely even longer. 

Shutdowns have resulted in huge cuts to the bureau's unstable funding stream, as it relies on fees from people who take swim lessons, fitness classes and attend summer camps.

Because facilities and programs have been shuttered for almost four months, Portland Parks & Recreation hasn't been able to generate revenue from fees. This has caused a "financial domino effect"; as the situation currently stands pools, community centers, camps and programs will not be available next summer or for the foreseeable future.

"It is heartbreaking to write this, but many of the current closures will continue beyond summer 2020, and not because of public health restrictions," Mayor Wheeler and Director Long wrote.

RELATED: Portland to keep pools closed all summer, cancel camps due to COVID-19

The parks department was already facing a massive budget shortfall before the coronavirus pandemic hit. 

Last year, late Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish had been working to create a more sustainable, and less vulnerable funding model for the bureau. Mayor Wheeler took over the bureau after Commissioner Fish passed away and is continuing down that track.

"We’ve known the inequities and challenges of our fee-based model for some time. But COVID-19 created a new, urgent need," Mayor Wheeler and Director Long wrote in the letter.

The bureau says the levy would center equity in programming and services and restart recreation for the summer of 2021 and end dependence on fees, so cost is not a barrier to people. It would also improve access to parks and facilities by making them cleaner, safer and more inviting.

The levy would help restore natural areas, fund the planting of more trees and allow for better care of the trees currently in Portland parks.

"This reality is hard to accept, but we are hopeful that this moment can be the beginning of a new era for our parks and recreation system, an era that is more equitable and more sustainable, and where cost isn’t a barrier for community members," Wheeler and Long wrote.

Portland Parks & Recreation is working with community members, cultural organizations and nonprofits to iron out the details of how money from the levy would be used. 

They want people to weigh in by filling out this survey or emailing ParksBureauDirector@portlandoregon.gov.

RELATED: Portland officials cut more than 950 city jobs, face potential $100 million budget hit due to coronavirus