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A sustainable future for our park system

A Sustainable Future
Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R) is committed to establishing a more financially sustainable direction, that aligns equitable service and funding levels – for the long term.
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To deliver critical community services, the Sustainable Future program is focused on identifying stable revenue sources to fund three major categories of work:

  • Operations: Equitable park and recreation programs, services, and routine maintenance of parks, natural areas, facilities, and trees.
  • Capital Maintenance: Maintain or replace existing facilities to prevent asset failures, such as the replacement of a roof or major repair of a play structure.
  • Capital Growth: Expand the capacity of the park system to meet the needs of a growing Portland, and address inequitable access to parks, natural areas, trees, and facilities.

Financial Sustainability Work to Date

2019: Program Created, Task Force, Council Work Session

To deliver the services Portlanders have said they need and value from their park and recreation system, additional and sustained funding must be secured. In 2019, after trying for many years to deliver sustainable services without sufficient resources, the bureau started the Sustainable Future program to strategically align its resources and services. Early steps included:

  • Alternative Funding Task Force: During the summer and fall of 2019, the bureau convened a community Alternative Funding Task Force to advise the bureau on alternative funding options under consideration.  
  • City Council Sustainable Future Work Session: In November 2019, the bureau held a work session with City Council to review its financial and service level forecasts, and potential alternative funding options. Trust for Public Land, Portland State University's Northwest Economic Research Center, and experts from across the bureau and City provided input. At that work session, the bureau received City Council support to pursue additional funding to change course and get the bureau on track to fulfill service levels. Specifically, City Council encouraged the bureau to continue pursuing a variety of options, including income tax, a temporary levy, formation of a special district, capital bonds, and a food and beverage tax.
2020: Parks Local Option Levy (Parks Levy)

In early 2020, the bureau was advancing work on a number of those options, but COVID impacted both services and bureau finances. Given the significant operational funding gaps, the bureau polled a bond (which could address capital maintenance needs) and a temporary levy (which could address operational needs), and both on the same ballot. With the highest polling support for an operating levy on its own, City Council referred a levy to the ballot. Portland voters approved that levy in November 2020.  

The 2020 voter-approved five-year Parks Levy allowed the bureau to avoid devastating service cuts and make progress on operating services, but it is a temporary funding solution that does not solve all the bureau’s long-term financial needs. 

The bureau is continuing its work towards a future where it can fulfill operations, capital maintenance, and capital growth service levels with sustainable funding.

2021-22: Parks Levy Year 1 Implementation

Fiscal Year 2021-22 was the first year of the five-year Parks Levy. The Sustainable Future program worked to develop procedures, programs, and partnerships to ensure successful delivery of Parks Levy-funded services for the community. Parks Levy funds supported three categories of services:

  • Recreation for All: Preserved hundreds of living-wage jobs to deliver recreation services and keep community centers and pools open, provided COVID-19 responsible summer programs in 2021, and piloted financial models designed to reduce cost as a barrier to access.
  • Protect and Grow Nature: Added living-wage jobs to improve the daily care of our trees, natural areas, and developed parks, including cleaning parks and keeping public restrooms open, performing pro-active tree maintenance, and planting trees.
  • Community Partnerships: Strengthened community partnerships by establishing the Parks Levy Oversight Committee, expanded the community grant program, and deepened partnerships that support park services. 
2022: Ballot Initiative Task Force

A Ballot Initiative Task Force community advisory group met during Summer 2022 to review alternative funding options for a financially sustainable parks system. The Ballot Initiative Task Force also advised PP&R Director Adena Long on the alternative funding options and sequencing of potential future ballot initiatives, which Director Long considered in collaboration with the Parks Commissioner-in-Charge Carmen Rubio. In addition to providing input on the funding alternatives City Council considered in 2019, the Ballot Initiative Task Force considered several others. 

2023 and Ongoing: Evaluating and Advancing Opportunities

The bureau is working to provide options to continue current operating funding levels, address needed capital funding to maintain current facilities, and address equity gaps in service.

Operations: Approximately one-third of the bureau’s current operations are funded by the Parks Levy, a five-year temporary operating levy. To sustain operational service levels, Portland voters would need to renew or replace the Parks Levy by 2025. 

There are also permanent funding options that future voters might consider that could replace the Parks Levy and provide more stability for park services. One of those options is a park and recreation special district, which can include permanent property tax funding support in addition to other funding options. In Washington state, park and recreation districts can be governed by a city council, in addition to an independent elected governing body. That city governance model has worked successfully in the two cities, Seattle and Olympia, where voters have created city governed districts. That option does not exist in the current Oregon statutes, but is an option that could make a park and recreation district a more effective and efficient option to deliver park services in Portland. In support of making city governance an option, the Portland City Council included a proposed state statute change as part of its State Legislative Agenda for 2023. With the support of the City’s Office of Government Relations and Commissioner Dan Ryan, Representative Travis Nelson filed House Bill 3515 in the 2023 state legislative session. This proposed legislation included a change to Oregon State Statute to allow for a city governance option for a Park district in Portland. If passed into law, Portland City Council would have the option to refer it to the voters, and Portland voters would need to approve it before it could become a reality. The bill did not advance out of committee in 2023, but PP&R appreciates the support of legislators and community organizations who supported the bill and engaged in conversation about how this option could sustain park services.

Capital Maintenance: The park system has been and is currently lacking the funds necessary to perform capital maintenance. This has resulted in nearly $600 million worth of unfunded but needed maintenance repairs and replacements to keep park assets functioning, safe, and ADA accessible. In recent years, several assets have failed and had to be closed or removed to protect the public. This includes removals of 243 light poles in 12 City parks, and the closures of: Columbia Pool, O’Bryant Square, picnic shelters at Montavilla Park and Woodstock Park, trail bridges in Colwood Natural Area and Forest Park, and playground equipment at a number of neighborhood parks. Without new, stable funding, the bureau predicts that this trend of closures will continue, and one in five PP&R assets will fail in the next 15 years.

PP&R has mapped its known capital maintenance and growth issues and opportunities. Notes about the map:

  • Asset data maintenance is ongoing. This means projects are continually updated, added, and deleted as asset information becomes available through inspection and reporting.
  • Sources of the maintenance backlog include: work orders for issues beyond the capacity of in-house maintenance teams, issues identified through system-wide condition assessments, and issues identified through specific project requests. 
  • PP&R considers project scores when prioritizing capital maintenance projects. Project scores are based on three criteria: likelihood of failure, consequence of failure, and equity (we use an index that considers service area demographics like percentages of youth, people of color, and households experiencing low income in the surrounding area).
  • This is not a comprehensive list of all the bureau's major maintenance needs. We have yet to comprehensively assess and document all categories of assets in our system. Additionally, this list does not include needs expected to be addressed through work orders from internal PP&R maintenance teams, or barriers expected to be remediated through the ADA Transition Plan, the latter of which are managed in a separate database.

Capital Growth: The Park System Development Charge (SDC) Program has enabled the bureau to invest in expanding the park system to meet the needs of a growing city. The park system has made some progress closing equity gaps in service, but has much more work to do to create equitable access across the system for all Portlanders. Future forecasted SDC revenues, grants/donations, and other resources are all resources that can continue to support park system growth.  Additional resources could increase the pace in closing existing equity gaps. 

Street Trees: As the park system works to meet the needs of a growing and changing city, and a changing climate, new or modified services may require additional or different resources. One new service community stakeholders have requested that the bureau explore is to assist property owners in caring for street trees. Currently, property owners are responsible for the care of their adjacent street trees. Community feedback has confirmed that the cost of street tree maintenance is a barrier for lower-income households caring for or planting street trees. PP&R has been discussing new opportunities for funding from the Portland Clean Energy Fund for street tree maintenance.

History of Voter Support for Parks

Portland Parks & Recreation has a history of using voter-supported tax measures to support delivery of park and recreation services. The park system Portlanders have today has been supported historically by a series of operating levies and capital bonds passed by voters. Most recently, voters passed a five-year operating levy in 2020. Voters also passed a $68 million dollar bond measure in 2014, which is nearing completion and was replacing a 1994 bond that was retiring. This support has enabled the creation of the park and recreation system we have today, and to continue to meet or improve services, the bureau will continue to need additional funding alternatives.

Watch an animation showing our city and park system’s growth through the decades, with support from voter approved bonds and levies.

City Council Work Session - November 26, 2019

Creating a sustainable future for Portland Parks & Recreation

Resource Documents

Portland Parks & Recreation’s developing civil rights page offers information related to making programming more accessible and inclusive.