On Saturday, Feb. 3, Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson held a virtual town hall meeting to lay out plans for preparing the County’s Fiscal Year 2024-25 budget over the next five months.
About 60 community members attended to better understand the budget process and submit written questions. The questions covered how the County will be investing in programming for people who are older and people with disabilities; Multnomah County Animal Services; public safety; and Supportive Housing Services investments amid other topics.
The County’s annual budget is a policy plan that directs how the County will spend its money over the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2024, and ends on June 30, 2025. The budget determines how much funding each of the County’s services will get. “When we talk about budgets in government, we often say that a budget is a reflection of a community’s values and priorities,” said Chair Vega Pederson. “That is true now more than ever because we see that there is an increased need; we know that so many people are suffering.”Chair Vega Pederson explained that even as the region continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, community needs remain high. And because the American Rescue Plan funds were never meant to be long-term, the federal government only provided for three years. The County is working to meet higher needs without that additional funding. The Chair also said she expected multiple County departments and programs will need to invest in the County’s homelessness response system.
Investments in the homelessness response system are going to “help us make urgent, actionable and measurable progress that our community needs and deserves,” said Chair Vega Pederson. “It’s going to help us continue our humanitarian response to people who are living unsheltered as well as providing support services so people can be successful in housing.”
Mapping out the budget process
The Chair was joined by Joy Fowler, director of the Office of Diversity and Equity Director, JR Lilly, director of the Office of Community Involvement, County Economist Jeff Renfro and Budget Director Christian Elkin.
Elkin said the budget process officially kicks off each year in November, when the County Economist presents a forecast for the General Fund. While much of the County’s revenue is earmarked by state, federal or grant requirements, the General Fund is the part of the budget that the Board spends. Once the forecast is presented, departments begin budget planning.
In February, departments submit requested budgets to the Chair for consideration. Because the County is required to maintain a balanced budget, Chair Vega Pederson said, this year departments will need to submit budgets that reflect a 3% reduction from current service levels.
After the Chair receives departments’ requested budgets, she and her staff then review, develop and release her proposed budget on April 25, Elkin said. The public can send their requests and comments through a Community Budget Survey, which is open until March 31, or email ChairBudget@multco.us for the Chair’s consideration.
After the Chair releases her proposed budget, the Board of Commissioners begins six weeks of work sessions and public hearings to solicit feedback before approving a final budget.
Multnomah County residents are invited to offer input on the proposed budget in three public hearings:
- Wednesday, May 8; 6 to 8 p.m.
501 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., Portland
Hybrid meeting: virtual and in-person in the Multnomah Building’s Board Room
- Wednesday, May 15; 6 to 8 p.m.
600 N.E. 8th St., Gresham
Hybrid meeting: virtual and in-person in the Multnomah County East Building
- Wednesday, May 29; 6 to 8 p.m.
“Our budget process benefits from every chance we get to hear from people as we’re engaging with folks and in dialogue with community members, especially those who are using our services – those are some of the most important voices,” said Chair Vega Pederson.
After the public hearings, work sessions and deliberations over possible amendments,, the Board of Commissioners will vote to pass the budget on June 6.
“The budget is the largest policy document that the County puts together. It is an expression of our values, our priorities and our commitment to our community,” said Elkin.
“One of the best ways forward is to approach our work in a cohesive, connected one-County way,” said Chair Vega Pederson. “As we build plans that are about addressing the most critical needs our community is facing, we are most impactful when we have that one-County approach.
“When we are developing solutions, it is important we make sure that the impacts are felt across Multnomah County from East County to East Portland to the West Hills to our downtown area to our unincorporated regions.”
Budgeting with an equity lens
The County uses an equity and empowerment lens to improve planning, decision-making, and resource allocation leading to more racially equitable policies and programs. At its core, using the lens helps identify racial disparities and helps decision-makers support and shift work to reduce those disparities.The lens is used at the program level and department level for budgeting purposes.
This year, more than 180 staff received training on how to apply the County’s equity and empowerment lens to the budgeting process. The County also involves equity managers to help with budget decisions.
Fowler, director of the Office of Diversity and Equity, said it’s imperative that the County prepares the budget with equity impacts in mind. Budget managers are expected to show how using equity helped them reach a decision about programs and services.
“We see our budget as a moral document and the clearest expression of our priorities,” said Fowler.
“When thinking about our Multnomah County values of safety, trust and belonging and our commitment to inclusively leading with race, our budget process and the budget itself should be a demonstration of us operationalizing our values directly into County programs, services and systems.”
Making budget decisions with community input
“Here at the County, we believe everyone’s voice is important to the budget process,” said Lily, the director of the Office of Community Involvement. “No matter who you are or where you are from, we want to hear it and we want you to be a part of this government system and our decision-making process.”
Community volunteers also play a critical role in the budget process each year as members of the County’s 10 Community Budget Advisory Committees (CBACs). The groups use an equity-driven approach to provide input that helps shape the County’s budget decisions.
The budget committees focus on priorities including improving housing stability and security; investing in behavioral healthcare; emphasizing culturally specific programs; reducing community violence; and continuing the County’s history of transparent and accountable elections.
Lilly said people interested in engaging in this year's budget process should join the community listening sessions planned for May.
“Our decision makers come up with better solutions when we know what your priorities are and have everyone involved in the process,” said Lilly. “We are going to create a great document and you help make us better.”A video recording of the town hall can be viewed here.