The money drains are still working fine

Willamette Week
devoted a lot of its issue this week to the current condition of downtown Portland. Their conclusion? It's bad, but not that bad.

Included in the coverage was a fascinating whistleblower-type story about Clean & Safe, Inc. This is a private charity that is funded by supplemental taxes imposed by the city on all businesses in the downtown district. The charity, as its name suggests, is there to keep downtown clean and safe. The problem is, downtown is neither clean nor safe by anyone's standards. So where is the money going?

Quite curiously, the charity pays a lot of its money out to the Portland Business Alliance, which is not a charity but a citywide trade organization. And the PBA is the entity that actually hires the private companies that do what security and cleanup work is currently being done. But the PBA takes a cut of the money passing through it, and craziest of all, the head of the Clean & Safe charity answers to the head of the PBA trade group, not the other way around.

An ambitious IRS agent could have a lot of fun with this.

And there's a lot of overhead. The head of Clean & Safe reportedly makes more than $200,000, and the head of the PBA apparently makes something in the $400,000 range. According to the WW story, Clean & Safe funds about 45 percent of the PBA payroll. My math tells me that therefore, close to $400,000 of the tax money spent on Clean & Safe in a year is being shelled out for just the two head honchos. Sheesh.

The PBA has a response to the story, from both it and Clean & Safe, posted on the former's website. The statement says in part:

Two decades ago, our organizations made a visionary decision to combine some staff and resources so that both nonprofits could efficiently deliver high-quality services to our community.... 

Our staff, contractors and partners care deeply for this community and their role in meeting the needs of not only providing essential and enhanced services for downtown Portland, but also in layering on the services a chamber of commerce provides to our regional business ecosystem.  

Downtown Portland is facing historic challenges, and many of these concerns are larger and beyond the control of just one nonprofit organization. They need multi-layer response by a multitude of public and private organizations.   

As we head into a renewal year for the enhanced service district, our board and staff are continuing to seek ways to improve what we do and provide greater collaboration to ensure Downtown Portland remains a healthy, vital center in the heart of our region.

You can buy the "layers" argument if you want, but to me, it's garbage.

The special tax deal that feeds these guys is up for reconsideration now. Let's hope the city auditor and other smart, independent parties step in and demand that the glaring structural irregularities get eliminated before City Hall signs on for more years of what is clearly failing. 

And City Council, don't you dare kick this can down the road.


  1. It’s a big club and you ain’t in it

  2. So, what might an ambitious IRS agent do with this? I find that remark tantalizing. Could you explain?

    1. Section 501(c)(3) charities (such as Clean & Safe) are subject to many, many rules and regulations under the federal tax laws.


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