The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, Nov. 9, approved immediately investing more than $30.4 million in homelessness services, behavioral health and public safety, using a rare mid-year surplus to address the community's most pressing issues.
The one-time resource responds to urgent community needs exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and sets aside hazard pay for eligible County employees who continued to serve the public during the pandemic.
Highlights from the budget rebalance include additional shelter beds and street outreach teams, new investments in behavioral health supports, increased capacity for vector control, and additional measures to address criminal justice reform and prevent gun violence.
“A surplus that comes at this size is rare,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said. “A surplus that arrives at such a critical, trying time in our community’s story is even more rare. And with the help of staff who have dedicated their careers to serving our community, we readily identify multiple areas where a surge of funding could help us to meaningfully improve the lives of the people who have been disproportionately harmed by this pandemic.”
The surplus was the result of the Board both increasing the business income tax rate in 2020 and extending the tax filing deadline to May 2021, and a stronger than expected economic recovery. Final tax collections — which came in after the Fiscal Year 2021-22 Budget was adopted — were more than $30.4 million above what was forecasted in May 2021.
Typically, the County would incorporate such revenue into its next budget, for FY 2023. But, because of the magnitude of the issues facing the community, the Board decided to make immediate, one-time investments.
“We want to make sure we’re responding to the most urgent needs in our community, specifically those that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Budget Director Christian Elkin. “We want to center our investments on the County’s role as the safety net government and Local Public and Mental Health Authority.”
Eight days after Chair Kafoury helped unveil a sweeping $38 million plan to address unsheltered homelessness in partnership with the City of Portland, commissioners on Nov. 9 voted to approve the County’s $19.2 million share of that work. They also said yes to two related requests to expand shelter capacity by tapping contingency funds and investing millions of dollars in state and federal grant money.
The largest package of budget adjustments underpinning that plan, from the Joint Office of Homeless Services, passed 4-1 with Commissioner Sharon Meieran dissenting. Those funds, including County business tax funds, City funds, and federal and state funds, will add:
- At least 400 new shelter beds across a series of sites the County would either lease or purchase, including motels and an alternative shelter with as many as 60 sleeping pods.
- An additional 20 to 25 service navigation outreach workers, including a new position at the Joint Office to coordinate outreach across the County. These teams will be rapidly deployed to high-impact locations citywide, including Old Town Chinatown, and also around existing shelter locations.
- More storage and hygiene options for people living without shelter, with plans to serve up to 300 camps in need.
- A new Street Crisis Coordination Center, including a path to set-aside shelter beds, to help the Joint Office and outreach workers better support people in camps who are engaging with the city’s public space management agencies.
- Hiring incentives and pay increases to recruit and keep shelter and outreach workers, many of whom are often close to homelessness themselves thanks to historically low pay despite performing difficult jobs.
- Expanded behavioral health services, including additional teams in Old Town Chinatown who can offer service connections and provide de-escalation.
Commissioner Meieran said she agreed with many of the concepts sought in the Joint Office funding package, including funding for shelter, outreach coordination and hygiene services.
But in voting no, she said she felt the package overall needed more community input and more of a cohesive strategy. She also said she worried the plans don’t go far enough and wouldn’t make enough of a difference, whether quickly or at all, in what community members see on the streets.
“We need to have oversight and accountability to ensure that this one-time boon doesn’t get to the point where we lose sight of the bigger picture, which is that we want to prevent people from living on the streets, and get them the services they need,” Commissioner Meieran said. “It’s not because I don’t believe in urgently investing in our homelessness crisis, but because I do believe in it.”
Commissioner Lori Stegmann said the quick work to plan for the surplus funding, as well as the partnership with the City of Portland, showed the right level of urgency from the Joint Office.
“I appreciate what my fellow commissioners have said. I worry that we will be paralyzed about analyzing things to death. The reality is $31 million may sound like a lot of money. It’s not. It’s not going to solve homelessness,” she said. “But if we can bring on 400 shelter beds, more behavioral health services and do more of all the things that we know are working, then I’m happy…. The investments we’re making today are absolutely critical.”
The Board later voted unanimously to invest surplus business tax funds through the Behavioral Health Division, as part of the County and City’s shared plan. Those funds make up the rest of the County’s contributions to the plan. They would allow for:
- The expansion of a successful County behavioral health pilot project that can help keep people in crisis off the streets in the first place by helping them stay in motel shelters. Two teams of wraparound support specialists will provide critical stability for people in motel shelters experiencing serious behavioral health challenges.
- Added vector control capacity to help camps and shelters manage issues with rats and vermin — with a new Environmental Health Houseless Response plan that includes site inspections and a shelter operator toolkit on vector-borne diseases.
In a third vote, commissioners unanimously approved shifting $500,000 from contingency funding to the Joint Office to support the creation of an additional alternative, village-style shelter this year. Those funds will add to $3 million in Supportive Housing Services funds that the Board previously approved to support a significant expansion in alternative shelters this year.
The Joint Office asked for the additional money after receiving an outpouring of interest from community partners this spring who were ready and willing to do the work.
“It is so important to respond when the community wants to participate with us,” said Commissioner Susheela Jayapal. “That’s the most important piece of this to me.”
Board adds $600,000 to Community Capital Fund
In Fiscal Year 2022, the Board allocated $1.5 million to create the Community Capital Fund. The fund supports land acquisition, infrastructure, and capital equipment for organizations serving communities most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Using funding from the business income tax, the Board voted to invest an additional $600,000 to the Community Capital Fund. The money will expand the scope of the fund to serve more community partners. It will also broaden the capacity for property acquisition and capital equipment purchases.
“With the additional investment of $600,000 into the Community Capital Fund, we’ll be able to increase the fund so we can serve more community partners,” said Kimberly Melton, chief of staff for Chair Kafoury. “That will allow us to have a greater reach in our community at a time when we know there is increased need and as the cost associated with real estate and with capital purchases continues to increase.”
The fund opened to applicants on Oct. 22, 2021, and initially was slated to close Nov. 8, 2021. With the new funding, community partners have until Nov. 22, 2021, to apply.
Investing in facilities for preschool providers
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, preschool providers lacked enough space to adequately serve families. The real estate market has only grown more competitive, making it increasingly difficult to develop or expand new and existing childcare facilities.
The County will join the City of Portland and the private sector for a combined investment of up to $450,000. The funds will go to Prosper Portland, the City’s redevelopment and economic development agency, to create a child care navigator position to help providers work through requirements on their infrastructure projects.
The funding will also distribute small grants across the County to help them expand or improve their facilities. The County will work with Prosper Portland to ensure those grants are distributed equitably.
“This work is going to help us to drive both quality and capacity as we’re looking at the investments that we will be making in the years ahead with Preschool For All,” said Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson.
Board boosts efforts to protect families, reduce gun violence
With its final vote, the Board unanimously approved $321,000 for two new Multnomah County Sheriff’s deputies to assist with family protection orders and to help remove guns and ammunition as ordered by the court; and a detective to focus on gun violence investigations as part of an FBI initiative.
“I know all of you join me in a commitment to improving the response to violence in our neighborhoods,” said Undersheriff Nicole Morrisey O’Donnell. “We are invested in partnering with advocates, County departments, and local public safety organizations to develop long-term strategies.... We also recognize we have to act with urgency to promote safety and build trust with our community.”
Chair Kafoury thanked the Undersheriff, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and City Commissioner Dan Ryan, as well as County staff, for moving so swiftly to allocate the surplus funding.
“Really,” she said, “this has been an amazing day.”