Less than two weeks after taking office, Portland Mayor Kate Snyder met with city councilors this week to establish collective goals for city government and begin discussions about budget direction for both city and school administrators.

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder is sworn in Dec. 2. She said this week “we can really launch forward with our work plan” as 2020 begins. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

During a moderated goal-setting workshop held Tuesday, councilors agreed to focus the work of eight council committees on four general policy areas: increasing affordable housing, continuing to address homelessness, easing the city tax burden and enhancing public transportation. Those top priorities are in addition to each committee’s routine duties and ongoing workloads carried over from the previous year.

“Once the holidays are behind us and we’re into 2020, we can really launch forward with our work plan and the committee work,” Snyder said.

The council also scheduled a workshop for Jan. 6 to discuss budget guidance, with some councilors suggesting that the new city budget should not increase property taxes by more than the rate of inflation, which has been about 2 percent.

Each councilor submitted three goals in advance of Tuesday’s meeting and the consensus largely aligned with affordability concerns raised during the recent mayoral and council elections.

Over the next year, the council will work to increase access to rental and home ownership that is safe, affordable and accessible; continue efforts to reduce homelessness and assist people experiencing homelessness through municipal, regional and state efforts; seek to address the high property tax burden by passing an affordable combined school and city budget and pursuing other revenue sources; and increase public transit infrastructure and capacity in the city.

The goal-setting discussion did not include specific policy initiatives.

Snyder said Tuesday that each council committee will use the overall goals to develop their work plans in the coming weeks. After that, she hopes each committee will present those plans at a future workshop to ensure that their workload aligns with the goals.

“Part of the reason we did the goal-setting as early as we did was to get in front of the committee work plans that will be developed,” Snyder said Wednesday. “It’s not that the council needs to review every little thing and approve it. It’s how do we share information so we’re rowing in the same direction and looking to elevate the priorities that we have shared.”

The annual goal-setting discussion came earlier than under Snyder’s predecessors, who waited until the New Year to convene the workshops. At times in previous years, each committee already had established work plans before the council could set its collective goals. The lack of coordination and a clear consensus, especially around budget issues, led to tensions among the council, mayor and city staff.

Among the goals established Tuesday, housing appeared to be one that had the most consensus. That issue, plus increasing cost of city living, dominated the races for mayor and City Council over the last year.

Councilor Tae Chong, who was inaugurated as the District 3 representative last week, said Tuesday that he would like the city to take steps to preserve its demographic diversity, not only regarding racial backgrounds, but also age and incomes. To do that, special effort is needed to create housing that’s affordable for the middle of the market.

“For me, everything is housing,” Chong said. “We can build a lot more housing, but only for those who can afford it, or only those who can get subsidies. And that’s not the kind of housing that we want.”

Councilors also reiterated a commitment to move forward with building a homeless shelter near the Westbrook border in Riverton as a replacement for the downtown Oxford Street Shelter, as well as implementing new homeless policies. Councilors highlighted the need to redouble efforts to work on regional and statewide solutions to homelessness, rather going it alone.

Councilors also want to focus on property taxes. City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones suggested the council set a goal of limiting property tax increases in both the school and city budgets to the Consumer Price Index for urban areas, which was 2.1 percent for the year ending in November.

Instead, councilors decided to set broader property tax goal and meet again on Jan. 6 to deliver more specific budget guidance.

Snyder said she heard a lot about property taxes while campaigning, adding that Portland’s relatively high tax rate compared to surrounding communities is preventing families from buying homes here.

“Having just gone through the campaign, I will say that the issue of property taxes was top among the list, both in terms of the impact it’s having on their household budget – whether they’re renters or owners – and the role it plays in the general affordability of the city of Portland,” she said.

While focusing on collective goals, the council’s Rules and Reports Committee will meet next month to establish a more formal process for referring initiatives from individual councilors to committees. Some councilors were concerned that individual initiatives can derail the council’s attention and increase workloads of city staff, who some say are already overworked.

One of such initiative would be a proposed ban on the use of facial recognition technology by city employees, including police. That measure was brought forward by Councilor Pious Ali during the last council council year and carried over to this year.

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