Nov. 2: Multnomah County is making new investments to address our most pressing challenges worsened by COVID

Dear friends and neighbors,

In March of 2020, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the first permanent update to the County’s Business Income Tax (BIT) rate since 1987. The BIT has long funded essential County functions like elections, social and health services, and public safety, among many other services supported by the general fund. But as Multnomah County faced down a looming structural deficit, we agreed that it was the right time to change the BIT to reflect the region’s prosperity.

However, just weeks after the vote, the COVID-19 pandemic transformed from a headline into a tangible threat to our collective health and safety, turning the ways our community lives, works and operates upside down.

In the 20 months since, we’ve seen the pandemic magnify existing disparities and inequities, destabilize countless community members, stretch the safety net to its limits, and disrupt the normal flow of people and business across the region. In response, Multnomah County has worked tirelessly to meet every challenge that the pandemic has created and, in many cases, worsened. 

The historic FY22 budget that we passed in June was built on the twin visions of attending to immediate needs in the wake of the pandemic and transformative change through once-in-a-generation investments. And that promise still holds true.

But COVID’s prolonged and ongoing impacts continue to exacerbate poverty, homelessness, and disparities in health, justice and public safety. 

Despite our unprecedented investments and a massive expansion of thoughtful strategies, ripples are still turning into waves. Community members are experiencing even more urgent needs that, if left unmet, threaten their stability, health and well-being.

But now, thanks to a $30 million surplus resulting from the new BIT rate, Multnomah County has a rare opportunity to make significant and immediate mid-year investments into strategies that can address our most pressing challenges.

These investments stretch across the County’s work: as a social safety net, a provider of shelter and homeless services, the public health authority, and a leader in public safety response and policy change.

Our investments are headlined by a $19 million allocation — the majority of our BIT surplus — into a $38 million joint funding package with the City of Portland announced Monday that will provide an urgent boost to our coordinated efforts to address homelessness in our community.

The trauma that our neighbors experience every day surviving outside only ends when people are connected to the places, services and relationships that get them closer to safety, rest and homes of their own. And that’s what we are aiming to accomplish through our investments in homeless services:

  • Up to 400 new shelter beds, including congregate shelter space, motel rooms and sleeping pods. These shelter beds will offer a safe, dry place for people surviving outside to come in out of the elements, while offering connections to health and housing services. We are actively negotiating the purchase or lease of four new sites right now.
  • An additional 20 to 25 service navigation outreach workers, who will prioritize working with people living in high-impact locations across the city, including Old Town Chinatown, as well as around current shelter locations.
  • We know that there is a growing number of people who are experiencing severe and persistent mental illness out on the streets, where their struggles are made even worse by the trauma of homelessness. So we are funding an urgently needed expansion of our behavioral health services to offer more connection and de-escalation, particularly in Old Town Chinatown. We’re also building on a successful County behavioral health pilot project by adding two teams of support specialists to work with people experiencing serious behavioral health challenges who are living in motel shelters.
  • A significant expansion of storage and hygiene services for people living outside, and ongoing support for portable toilet locations throughout the community.
  • With partners including the Joint Office and the City of Portland’s Office of Management and Finance, we will establish a Street Services Coordination Center. The center will align the management of public spaces with our homelessness response system, notably through the creation of a shelter referral pathway for navigation workers and first responders.
  • Expanded staffing and resources for cleanup programs like SOLVE, Central City Concern’s Clean Start program and the City’s Impact Reduction Program. Investments will also increase financial support for community-based, volunteer cleanup programs that are already active.
  • ​​Our public health team will also see an increase in funding to add capacity for vector control, which will help address the increasing need to reduce the risk of vector-borne disease, especially downtown and the urban core.

Multnomah County is also investing in accelerating our work to transform the criminal legal system through our Transforming Justice initiative. While the project has made steady progress, this allocation will give us the resources we need to complete the community engagement that will inform a new, equitable and restorative vision of public safety.

And finally, our emergency spending will bolster our efforts to address the deadly surge in gun violence that our community has grappled with during the pandemic. Since the sheer presence of firearms is a primary driver of gun violence, we are funding the addition of several positions in the Sheriff’s office that engage directly in gun dispossession and gun violence investigations.

We have also remained mindful that this surplus is one-time-only funding, and have worked diligently across all our allocations to be smart about our commitments, taking care to balance immediate and ongoing service needs.

I am deeply appreciative of the County leaders, as well as our partners at the City — specifically Mayor Ted Wheeler, Commissioner Dan Ryan and their respective teams — who helped craft this suite of interventions that can and will make a difference now in the lives of our community members. The depth of their collective knowledge, expertise and community connection has put us in a position to make wise and meaningful investments. 

The issues that have grown alongside the pandemic may feel stubborn and persistent, but Multnomah County will continue to show up for our neighbors, especially those who need the most support. I’m deeply grateful that we’ve been given the opportunity — and the resources — to rise up to our most pressing challenges.

Please stay safe and stay healthy,

Deborah Kafoury
Multnomah County Chair