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Read former PBOT Director Tom Miller’s farewell email to staff

Read former PBOT Director Tom Miller’s farewell email to staff

National Bike Summit - Day three-205

Yesterday was the last day for Tom Miller as Director of PBOT.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)


As of today, Tom Miller is no longer Director of the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT). He tendered his resignation back in January (at Mayor Charlie Hales’ request). Yesterday, Miller shared some parting thoughts to his staffers (whom he calls “Team Transport”) via email and we’ve just gotten a copy of it.

Before he left, Miller also polished off the bureau’s 2013-14 budget and PBOT’s first ever Business Plan. We’ll share more from both those documents, along with a lot of other budget-related coverage in the days and weeks to come. With a recent PBOT financial audit, a forthcoming paving audit, and budget negotiations set to heat up, things are sure to get very interesting.

Read Tom Miller’s email below:

Team Transport-

Nearly two years ago to the day I jumped into a street sweeper with Tyrone Goodgame. We made a quick pass through the Boise-Eliot neighborhood just north of our maintenance yard on a clear winter’s day. Organic debris, mostly decaying leaves and twigs from nearby street trees, clung tightly to the curb. Tyrone handled the street sweeper with a deft touch as we shared observations over the engine’s roar.

Periodically Tyrone would choose to skip a section of street despite an obvious accumulation of debris. I found this curious. I was a new bureau director and intuitively eager to oversee the bureau’s best work. And my time in city hall had lodged in me its own accumulation of facts and analysis about the importance of street cleaning. Everybody likes a clean street, and it’s even legally required (as part of the city’s Clean Water Act permit).

Yet Tyrone’s confidence in decision-making seemed natural. I sensed an important lesson and piped up.

“Tyrone, what about that section we just passed?”

“Can’t get in there. Too many parked cars.”

“What about the other block? There were only two cars.”

“New street trees. We’d take down limbs. You know we can’t do that. The tree police would be after us.” We laughed.

Important lessons indeed.

Each day hundreds of us make thousands of decisions to implement the vision for Portland expressed by our elected leadership. Occasionally the drop of the mayor’s gavel resounds with a clarity of direction unobstructed by ambiguity. More often we find ourselves in Tyrone’s position, called upon to deploy our best judgment to make real the decisions of our leaders.

I take comfort as your departing director in knowing that I’ve offered my all to the tasks of anticipating and interpreting council direction. Our record together reflects a string of accomplishments that honor their intentions. And when given the opportunity to share the wisdom of experience like Tyrone’s, we’ve done so. Briefly,

  • Peter Koonce [Division Manager, Signals, Street Lighting and ITS] and his team doggedly pursued a transition in streetlights to LED technology. The new lights will save taxpayers millions over time while producing a higher quality of light, yielding a safer travel experience in times of darkness.
  • With a budget strained with expectation, group managers led development of “Streets of Citywide Significance,” a prioritization tool that directs the bureau’s precious discretionary resources to the most important assets.
  • Under new Mayor Charlie Hales, paving is the priority. With the assistance of Jamie Waltz, Tom Beggs, Suzanne Kahn, and Steve Townsen, Brian Oberding can tell Mayor Hales exactly where the highest priority paving opportunities are, and how much they’ll cost. We’ve built his goal of paving or sealing 100 miles of streets with existing resources into the 13/14 budget we submit today.
  • Alissa Mahar was a new arrival to the team when she insisted to me that we develop a Business Plan for 13/14. I enthusiastically agreed. Accompanying the budget we submit today is the 13/14 business plan that articulates for council, the auditor, the interested public, and all of us our proposed priority actions for 13/14.
  • And most consequentially to my mind, we carried out council’s charge to establish a Financial Task Force. That group reviewed our revenue structure, identified its deficiencies, and developed a menu of opportunities for strengthening the bureau’s financial structure. When council chooses to update our bureau’s revenue model, the analysis and recommendations of our task force will serve as a cornerstone for council’s deliberation and ultimate action.

Things change, including bureau leadership. This series of quiet but essential reforms pave the way for my successors. It’s been an incredible privilege for me to initiate these actions. We all share Tyrone’s experience from time to time. The reforms help guide the decisions you’re called upon to make just a little bit easier. I wish you every success in the time to come.

Sincerely yours,
Tom

Stay tuned.

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Mayor Hales asks PBOT Director Tom Miller to resign – Updated

Mayor Hales asks PBOT Director Tom Miller to resign – Updated

Oregon Active Transportation Summit-34

Tom Miller speaking at a conference
in Salem back in April.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

The Willamette Week reported on New Year’s Eve that Mayor Charlie Hales has asked Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) Director Tom Miller for his resignation.

According to the Willamette Week, the resignation letter is due on February 4th, which is the day city bureau budgets are due. However, The Oregonian reported today that Miller has already handed in the letter. What this means for the ongoing budget process (which Miller has spearheaded), remains to be seen (Miller will retain his post until February 4th.) Miller has not made any official comment about the news yet, but we’re expecting to hear more from him this week.

This move by Hales isn’t a complete surprise; but it seems to have been much more abrupt than expected. Back in March while on the campaign trail, Hales told The Oregonian that he didn’t plan on keeping Miller around if he won the election. “This isn’t personal,” he told The Oregonian, “There are major issues in the bureau, and it needs a fresh and fully qualified leader.” (Mayoral candidate Eileen Brady also called for a change in PBOT leadership.)

Hales has expressed two main reasons for his desire for new leadership at PBOT. The first is that Miller was appointed to the position in January 2011 by his former boss, Mayor Sam Adams. The lack of a national search to find the most qualified candidate for such a high profile position didn’t strike Hales the right way. In April, he told us that, “As Mayor, I will insist that no one is hired to direct the city’s bureaus without a national search among top professionals in the field.” In his defense, Miller has said that it’s common practice for bureau chiefs to be appointed.

The other reason Hales wanted Miller to move on is a perception that the two have a different approach to managing the transportation system. As we reported back in April, Hales’ campaign director told us that given Miller and Hales’ different views on the direction of PBOT, Miller might simply resign. What those different views are has yet to be very well defined. Hales campaigned on a “roads first” platform and wanted to create the perception among voters that he would get “back to basics.” But what exactly Hales means by these phrases — and whether or not he means bicycle access improvements will be given a lower priority during his administration — still isn’t clear.

For his part, Miller saw the writing on the wall. Back in July, he applied for a new job with the City of Tucson, Arizona. While that job never materialized, Miller still expected to be given a fair shake by Hales. He expected that Hales would come and give each bureau director a thorough review in order to judge their future based on performance, rather than politics. “I’m confident I’ll be judged based on my record, not on Sam’s record: That’s what I deserve, that’s what every bureau director deserves,” Miller told us in April. “Anything less would be purely political in nature and that’s not good for the city.”

In the end, it’s likely that Hales simply wants a fresh start. There is a lot of political baggage surrounding Mayor Adams, and Tom Miller — who served as Adams’ right-hand man for six years — is tied to that past whether he likes it or not.

We’ll have more on this story when PBOT and/or Tom Miller release their official statement.

UPDATE, 1/3:
The Oregonian has published Miller’s resignation letter. It reads in part: “You have made clear that your request for my resignation is in no way related to my performance, rather your desire to take the bureau in another direction.”

Also of note, if Mayor Hales would have fired Tom Miller for no cause, Miller would have been guaranteed a severance package. However, since Miller resigned, he receives no severance.

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Facing further cuts, PBOT floats new revenue ideas at budget meeting

Facing further cuts, PBOT floats new revenue ideas at budget meeting

PBOT Director Tom Miller at a meeting
of his Budget Advisory Committee
last night.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

The budget outlook for the Bureau of Transportation is a bit better this year than it was last year; but things are still grim. I attended the first of three PBOT Budget Advisory Committee meetings last night to get the lowdown and words like “triage” were being thrown around. But amid the doom and gloom, there are some interesting developments to report that could brighten the picture.

The big takeaway from last night is that PBOT is prepping for a $4.5 million budget gap in fiscal 2013-14 (which runs July-June). Those cuts are to be ongoing cuts, which means coupled with last year’s huge cuts, the bureau is seriously hurting.

Here’s why these further cuts are necessary:

  • PBOT’s take from the State Highway Trust Fund has been downwardly forecasted by ODOT to the tune of $1.8 million.
  • PBOT’s retirement and health benefit costs have doubled from 2011 to 2012, and now require an additional $1.4 million.
  • PBOT has debt service obligations of about $1 million (primarily due to bonds taken out for Sellwood Bridge and Portland Milwaukie Light Rail projects).

To make the cuts, PBOT will use a similar process as last year. They’ll rank all internal programs on a spreadsheet and fund those first. Then, all leftover money will be doled out according to a map that lists the “streets of citywide significance.” That concept was hatched by PBOT Director Tom Miller last year and it prioritizes streets that, “are of the highest value for the transportation function” and that, “carry the most volume across all modes.” (I’ll have more on these details as the budget process moves forward.)

Miller led last night’s meeting and he went over several factors that are contributing to PBOT’s dire straits.

First and foremost, as many of you already know, the buying power and the overall intake of gas tax continues to fall. And, as fuel efficiency improves and people drive fewer miles, the trendline of what the city brings in from gas tax doesn’t look pretty.

Furthermore, Miller explained that while the gas tax is one of the city’s largest sources of revenue, relying on it presents a conundrum:

“The more effective we become with providing Portlanders with choices, the more successful we are at helping transition people to other means of travel, the fewer dollars we have coming through the doors…. Our policy goals are a lot further ahead than the funding structures. That’s a challenge, that, as a community we have to reconcile.”

Another factor shrinking PBOT’s budget is fewer dollars coming from federal and other outside grant sources (“other people’s money” is how Miller described it). Miller said that figure was about $120 million two years ago and next year it’s slated to be only about $50 million. It’s worth noting that PBOT is unique among all city bureaus in that it’s largest sources of funding (outside grants and the State Highway Trust Fund) are completely out of their control.

With dwindling funds and a huge maintenance backlog and long lists of projects they’d like to do, PBOT needs a new revenue stream. Last year, before the budget talks started, PBOT (and their Budget Advisory Committee) received a mandate from City Council and the Mayor that they were not allowed to even consider new revenue streams. The politics were just not there.

PBOT has not yet received similar notice this time around (they’re “anxiously” awaiting official budget guidance from City Council). However, regardless of whether or not Council makes the same edict as last year, the ice around the conversation for new revenue seems to be melting. This is evident by the actions and words of both Miller and his staff.

Miller announced last night that a task force of financial experts is currently working on a report for PBOT that will detail a number of possible new funding streams. Among them: “performance pricing” for parking; a street fee; and a local increase in the gas tax.

“Performance pricing” is essentially dynamic pricing for parking spots where the price fluctuates based on demand. Miller shared last night how PBOT has already started this type of pricing around Jeld-Wen Field during Portland Timbers home games. When demand for the 455 metered spots around the stadium is highest, the price is $3.50 per hour compared to the regular downtown rate of $1.60.

In addition to the new revenue from performance pricing, Miller said a goal of expanding the program would be, “To send a signal to say, ‘Hey, you might want to take transit.’ It’s just a little nudge to think about a different transportation choice.”

Miller also hinted that the groundwork is being laid for another try at introducing a citywide “street fee.” This would be third time it comes up in Portland. As transportation commissioner in 2001, Mayor-elect Charlie Hales tried to make one happen in 2001. Then in 2007, then transportation commissioner Sam Adams also tried. Both attempts were pushed back after opposition from various interest groups (grocers in 2001, a petroleum lobbyist representing convenience stores in 2007) ; but with today’s political and funding environment, the third time is very likely to be the charm.

Last night, Miller referred to the street fee as a, “Fee for access to the public right of way,” and various staffers around the table pointed out that 20 jurisdictions around the state already have such a fee in place. But don’t expect it to happen for at least another year or two. Miller said, “My presumption is that a brand new council won’t take on the heavy lift,” and added that it won’t happen unless a “Broad coalition of support exists to push it into the finish line”

The financial task force’s report will also include the recommendation to increase the local gas tax. Given that a 5-year moratorium on local gas tax increases (due to the Jobs and Transportation Act legislation that passed in 2009) is over in 2014, I won’t be surprised if PBOT jumps on this one.

Given these new revenue ideas, Miller said he’s developing two separate budgets. The “Plan B budget” would be one that, “provides a balanced, conservative, sober budget with no new revenue at all.” Miller’s “Plan A budget” would be “built on some new revenue” just in case Council gives PBOT the green light to consider it.

I sense a growing chorus among PBOT management that real funding reforms are on the horizon. They are speaking about them in more detail and with more urgency and confidence than I’ve ever heard. In the past, this stuff was talked about as if it would never actually happen. Now, it’s not if, it’s when and how.

“Frankly,” Miller said at the end of the meeting, “It’s time to reinvent how we fund transportation. That’s the bottom line. It’s not an easy conversation, but it’s one that has to be had.”

Stay tuned.

Facing further cuts, PBOT floats new revenue ideas at budget meeting

Facing further cuts, PBOT floats new revenue ideas at budget meeting

PBOT Director Tom Miller at a meeting
of his Budget Advisory Committee
last night.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

The budget outlook for the Bureau of Transportation is a bit better this year than it was last year; but things are still grim. I attended the first of three PBOT Budget Advisory Committee meetings last night to get the lowdown and words like “triage” were being thrown around. But amid the doom and gloom, there are some interesting developments to report that could brighten the picture.

The big takeaway from last night is that PBOT is prepping for a $4.5 million budget gap in fiscal 2013-14 (which runs July-June). Those cuts are to be ongoing cuts, which means coupled with last year’s huge cuts, the bureau is seriously hurting.

Here’s why these further cuts are necessary:

  • PBOT’s take from the State Highway Trust Fund has been downwardly forecasted by ODOT to the tune of $1.8 million.
  • PBOT’s retirement and health benefit costs have doubled from 2011 to 2012, and now require an additional $1.4 million.
  • PBOT has debt service obligations of about $1 million (primarily due to bonds taken out for Sellwood Bridge and Portland Milwaukie Light Rail projects).

To make the cuts, PBOT will use a similar process as last year. They’ll rank all internal programs on a spreadsheet and fund those first. Then, all leftover money will be doled out according to a map that lists the “streets of citywide significance.” That concept was hatched by PBOT Director Tom Miller last year and it prioritizes streets that, “are of the highest value for the transportation function” and that, “carry the most volume across all modes.” (I’ll have more on these details as the budget process moves forward.)

Miller led last night’s meeting and he went over several factors that are contributing to PBOT’s dire straits.

First and foremost, as many of you already know, the buying power (it hasn’t kept up with inflation) and the overall intake of gas tax continues to fall. And, as fuel efficiency improves and people drive fewer miles, the trendline of what the city brings in from gas tax doesn’t look pretty.

Furthermore, Miller explained that while the gas tax is one of the city’s largest sources of revenue, relying on it presents a conundrum:

“The more effective we become with providing Portlanders with choices, the more successful we are at helping transition people to other means of travel, the fewer dollars we have coming through the doors…. Our policy goals are a lot further ahead than the funding structures. That’s a challenge, that, as a community we have to reconcile.”

Another factor shrinking PBOT’s budget is fewer dollars coming from federal and other outside grant sources (“other people’s money” is how Miller described it). Miller said that figure was about $120 million two years ago and next year it’s slated to be only about $50 million. It’s worth noting that PBOT is unique among all city bureaus in that it’s largest sources of funding (outside grants and the State Highway Trust Fund) are completely out of their control.

With dwindling funds and a huge maintenance backlog and long lists of projects they’d like to do, PBOT needs a new revenue stream. Last year, before the budget talks started, PBOT (and their Budget Advisory Committee) received a mandate from City Council and the Mayor that they were not allowed to even consider new revenue streams. The politics were just not there.

PBOT has not yet received similar notice this time around (they’re “anxiously” awaiting official budget guidance from City Council). However, regardless of whether or not Council makes the same edict as last year, the ice around the conversation for new revenue seems to be melting. This is evident by the actions and words of both Miller and his staff.

Miller announced last night that a task force of financial experts is currently working on a report for PBOT that will detail a number of possible new funding streams. Among them: “performance pricing” for parking; a street fee; and a local increase in the gas tax.

“Performance pricing” is essentially dynamic pricing for parking spots where the price fluctuates based on demand. Miller shared last night how PBOT has already started this type of pricing around Jeld-Wen Field during Portland Timbers home games. When demand for the 455 metered spots around the stadium is highest, the price is $3.50 per hour compared to the regular downtown rate of $1.60.

In addition to the new revenue from performance pricing, Miller said a goal of expanding the program would be, “To send a signal to say, ‘Hey, you might want to take transit.’ It’s just a little nudge to think about a different transportation choice.”

Miller also hinted that the groundwork is being laid for another try at introducing a citywide “street fee.” This would be third time it comes up in Portland. As transportation commissioner in 2001, Mayor-elect Charlie Hales tried to make one happen in 2001. Then in 2007, then transportation commissioner Sam Adams also tried. Both attempts were pushed back after opposition from various interest groups (grocers in 2001, a petroleum lobbyist representing convenience stores in 2007) ; but with today’s political and funding environment, the third time is very likely to be the charm.

Last night, Miller referred to the street fee as a, “Fee for access to the public right of way,” and various staffers around the table pointed out that 20 jurisdictions around the state already have such a fee in place. But don’t expect it to happen for at least another year or two. Miller said, “My presumption is that a brand new council won’t take on the heavy lift,” and added that it won’t happen unless a “Broad coalition of support exists to push it into the finish line”

The financial task force’s report will also include the recommendation to increase the local gas tax. Given that a 5-year moratorium on local gas tax increases (due to the Jobs and Transportation Act legislation that passed in 2009) is over in 2014, I won’t be surprised if PBOT jumps on this one.

Given these new revenue ideas, Miller said he’s developing two separate budgets. The “Plan B budget” would be one that, “provides a balanced, conservative, sober budget with no new revenue at all.” Miller’s “Plan A budget” would be “built on some new revenue” just in case Council gives PBOT the green light to consider it.

I sense a growing chorus among PBOT management that real funding reforms are on the horizon. They are speaking about them in more detail and with more urgency and confidence than I’ve ever heard. In the past, this stuff was talked about as if it would never actually happen. Now, it’s not if, it’s when and how.

“Frankly,” Miller said at the end of the meeting, “It’s time to reinvent how we fund transportation. That’s the bottom line. It’s not an easy conversation, but it’s one that has to be had.”

Stay tuned.