Portland Mayor Charlie Hales gave his third annual State of the City address Friday, committing himself to finding ways to make Portland safer, more livable, more affordable and more just for all residents.

“We spent a lot of time in the last two years righting the ship,” Hales said, citing the budget deficit he inherited upon taking office. “Now it’s time to pilot the ship to where we as a community want to go.”

The speech served as a de facto campaign opener for Hales, who has all but formally announced his plans to seek re-election in 2016.

In contrast to his previous two speeches, Hales’ address before the City Club of Portland outlined specific policy proposals he plans to roll out in the coming weeks and months.

They include passing a $15-an-hour minimum wage for all city workers and contractors, a potential $5,000 tax credit for each ex-offender hired by local businesses, and a pledge to work with Multnomah County to house all homeless veterans in the city by Veterans Day, next November.

He also threw his support behind the effort by Rob Justus and Dave Carbonneau to build 1,000 affordable apartments in the next four years.

“We need these kinds of creative solutions,” Hales said in the noontime speech, in a ballroom at the Sentinel hotel downtown.

On the $15 minimum wage, Hales cited business owner John Russell for promising to match that wage for workers in his offices. “I call on other civic-minded business leaders to match it,” Hales said. Russell contributed to Hales’ 2012 election campaign.

Last month, Multnomah County said it would increase the minimum wage for its workers to $15 an hour over three year.

If approved, the city policy could be costly for at least one bureau. Last year, Commissioner Amanda Fritz said it would cost the Parks Bureau, which she oversees, $2.7 million a year to boost the wages of 2,000 seasonal workers to a $15 minimum.

On the push to hire ex-convicts, Hales called it “a very good investment” in contrast to the billions of dollars spent on prisons each year.

He also committed to creating new rules on neighborhood infill to “make demolition a less attractive option,” a nod to the wave of so-called drive-by demolitions that has hit many central and eastside neighborhoods.

A centerpiece of Hales’ speech was the problem of the “urban equation” versus “the human equation.”

He cited other U.S. urban centers that were in decline for decades as residents fled to the suburbs areas. He said Portland has solved that problem through its commitment to redeveloping parking lots, saying no to more highways, investing in public transit and revitalizing neighborhoods.

“We put our values into our actions and then created a lot of great partnerships,” Hales said. “That’s the Portland way.”

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales talks to Parkrose High School students after his state of the city address at the Sentinel hotel in downtown Portland. 

But Portland continues to struggle with problems at the individual level. Hales said Portland can “continue to realize its promise” as a livable city, citing police reform and community activism to address economic and racial inequities as the foundation to solving that problem.

On the city’s partnership in the Black Male Initiative, Hales noted that he has “never been more proud of men in our community.” He called for a new city commission to monitor equity in contracting and purchasing, to boost the share that goes to minority and women-owned businesses. According to Willamette Week, the minority set-aside program has repeatedly been criticized for its efficacy and vulnerability.

On safety, he credited new Police Chief Larry O’Dea and his leadership for making headway on de-escalating volatile situations. “The best tool we have is compassion,” Hales said.

He cited the shooting outside Rosemary Anderson High School in North Portland on Dec. 12 as one of the lowest moments of his tenure. Labraye Franklin, a student at the school and former intern in Hales’ office, was wounded.

Hales pledged to once again push for mandatory background checks for all gun sales. “Together, this Legislature and this community will do the right thing for Labraye and everyone else at risk of gun violence. This is the session,” he added.

He called mental illness the “most intractable issue” facing the city and the police force. “Next year, I want to come before you and say … we’ve opened our first psychiatric service center,” Hales said.

The mayor struck a thankful and positive tone at the speech’s outset, thanking each member of the City Council, starting with Commissioner Nick Fish for his role in helping to fight the effort to remove city oversight over the water and sewer bureaus.

“We owe a debt to Nick,” Hales said, for preventing the “hostile takeover” of the bureaus.

He also thanked Commissioner Amanda Fritz for her role in passing last November’s $68 million parks bond, and Dan Saltzman for his advocacy through the Portland Children’s Levy.

Hales, pointedly, saved his thank-you for Commissioner Steve Novick for last.

The two spent much of the past year trying to pass some kind of funding plan to increase revenue for street repairs and safety projects. That plan, after a year of fits and starts, remains in limbo. Hales announced this month that he was shelving it to see what kind of transportation package Salem lawmakers come up with in the legislative session that starts Monday.

“We’re not done talking about the street fund until we’ve done something,” Hales said, adding: “No matter what” happens in Portland and Salem won’t erase the problem.

In a meeting with Parkrose High School students after the speech, Hales shed some light on how his comment to house all homeless veterans by November may be feasible.

In response to a freshman’s question, he said the federal government is offering vouchers for veterans to pay for all of their housing, calling that a huge asset. “We’re going to make sure they have a place where they can use those.”

He also told the students one of the reasons he ran for mayor in 2012 was to reform the Police Bureau in the wake of the high-profile deaths of James Chasse and Aaron Campbell.

The content of State of the City speeches is often the product of the political climate. In the mayor’s first one, he brought a tool belt and hung it over the lectern as a reminder of his pledge to direct city government to a back-to-basics approach.

In last year’s speech, Hales focused on job growth and spending on homelessness services, but also on equity. That speech came on the heels of the then-controversial plan to sell a city-owned lot in Northeast Portland to a developer to make way for a Trader Joe’s. He pledged to make Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard the best street of that name in the nation.

— Andrew Theen

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@cityhallwatch

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