Services Axed, Prisons Grow. Diane Linn, Say it Ain't So.
Bear with me, I know few words inspire more boredom than "budget." But this is important. The Multnomah County budget is just about to break out of the secret box in which it's been fomenting since the commissioners learned that they were facing yet another gigantic funding shortfall. Although it's not slated to go public until Thursday, word about its substance has been eeking out bit by bit. And if you care about the people of this city, you're not going to like it. Despite the reputedly progressive leanings of Diane Linn and at least 3 of the four other commissioners, it looks like children, old people, people with disabilities, and people who are poor are about to get the shaft, while the Sheriff's department smiles.
Like most people in Portland, I have not yet seen the final budget. However, Chair Linn has indicated that severe shortfalls will inevitably lead to a tightening of the proverbial belt. Apparently, that tightening will come at an enormous cost. Aging and Disability Services, for example, is about to see its budget slashed, leading to a loss of employment for scores of county workers, and a loss of services to people who need them. Multnomah County Mental Health services are slated for cuts, and rumor has it the public guardian's office will be eliminated entirely, leaving some of our most vulnerable citizens without assistance. Programs serving children, serving people with disabilities, and homeless people are reportedly on the chopping block. Human Resources staff at the county report that mass layoffs are unavoidable, and committees are already being formed to try to help "transition" people out of their jobs.
Said one county social worker, who chose to remain anonymous, "This is just really difficult. I don't know what my clients will do, and I don't know what I will do." Another worker added, "I've put in a lot of hard work, trying to make things better for people. And now, I'm about to lose my job. I don't know how I will manage." She noted that unemployment is very high in Oregon, and that there are few jobs to go to. "I'm like everybody else," She said. "I have rent to pay, I have a family to feed, I have bills that are stacking up. I have 6 years of college, and I make next to nothing, and I took it all this time because I believed in what I was doing. Now, I have very little savings to fall back on."
While county workers are frightened at the prospect of unemployment and poverty, they are equally frightened about what might become of their clients. "Kate" is a caseworker whose job is likely to be eliminated. "I work with the most fragile clients," she said. "Most of them have no families to take care of them, and it's all up to me. I don't know what will happen to them if I have to go." When I spoke to her, Kate was juggling the needs of several clients. She was trying to get a wheelchair for a woman who could not afford one, and she was trying to find housing for an elderly man who could not live on his own anymore but did not want to go to a nursing home. And, she was trying to find a home for a cat. The cat belonged to a woman who was too ill to care for it any longer. While the county commissioners may not consider her work to be important, I imagine the woman with the cat, the man who needs housing, and the woman who needs a wheelchair would all disagree.
"Barbara" is a worker with Adult Protective Services. She, too, is concerned for her clients. "I see unimaginable things," she said. "You wouldn't believe the kinds of things that go on behind closed doors. I can't believe this community would be willing to leave its weakest members without any protection. Sometimes, we're the only ones there for people, and if we're not there, well...." She trailed off and grew silent.
These are only some of the people who will be impacted by dwindling public resources at a time when billions of dollars a DAY are being spent on unending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Part of the county budget shortfall is a result of cuts to federal dollars that once trickled down to Multnomah County, but are now going to Halliburton and Bechtel, and to people like Kenneth Lay. But some of the responsibility has to be shouldered more locally. Because curiously, Chair Linn and the other commissioners have apparently decided that more police presence and more prison beds are a higher priority than social services.
Commissioners identified 6 "priority areas" in the budget process. One of those areas is "safety." I believe that "safety" should mean that people are safe from abuse in nursing homes because there are enough protective services workers and monitors looking out for them; that people are safe from being thrown out on the streets because caseworkers and intake workers and public guardians are working to keep them in safe, affordable, adequate housing; that people are safe from suffering preventable mental breakdowns because mental health workers are getting them access to treatment; that people are safe from succumbing to bed sores, broken hips, dehydration and exposure, because the threads of our community are binding them to us, and we are providing them with the services and attention they need.
Alas, though, the commissioners have apparently interpreted "safety" to mean, instead, more sheriffs to keep us "safe" from things like "terror," and more prison beds in which to put people who jaywalk or hold signs on city streets. Chair Linn has proudly been reporting all day that, not only will the sheriff's office not receive the kind of cuts being felt among social service workers, but her new budget will actually increase jail space by more than a hundred beds. How about that.
If you find this as disturbing as I do, please take a moment to give the commissioners a piece of your mind. They can be found here:
Diane Linn (County Chair)
Multnomah County Chair's Office
501 SE Hawthorne Blvd., Suite 600
Portland, OR 97214
(Hey, feel free to drop by.)
Maria Rojo de Steffey (District 1)
Serena cruz (District 2)
Commissioner Serena Cruz, District 2
Lisa Naito (District 3)
Lonnie Roberts (District 4)
Phone: (503) 988-5213
Fax: (503) 988-5262
(He's an ass. Really.)
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