After homelessness debate, Multnomah County OKs $2.8B budget

Civic Affairs

Push by Commissioner Sharon Meieran to fund alternative shelter sites failed

(L-R) Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury with commissioners Sharon Meieran, Susheela Jayapal, Jessica Vega Pederson and Lori Stegmann. (Courtesy, 2021)

PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners gave the thumbs up to a $2.8 billion budget Thursday, June 3 — approving a plan that jumps spending 37% over last year’s $2.06 billion program.

The $2,809,882,289 document, the largest ever disbursement of government funds in county history, would have seemed nearly unthinkable just 11 months ago, when County Chair Deborah Kafoury announced a 2% cut to every department as the novel coronavirus ravaged the economy.

But the belt cinching ceased soon after, in part due to the Economic Impact Payments that put $1,000 checks directly in Oregonians’ pockets. In the same vein, the American Rescue Plan passed by the Biden Administration boosted the budget by $78.9 million — the first of two like-sized payments from the feds to Multnomah County.

Kafoury noted that the spending plan was crafted during perhaps “the most tumultuous chapter in our community’s history.”

“We led the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic and have taken steps to dismantle systemic racism and confront racial injustices in our community and our own organization,” she said. “Multnomah County has consistently stepped up and into spaces of need, doing everything we could to respond effectively and equitably.”

While the board passed the budget unanimously, the vote was not without dissension on the topic of homelessness from Commissioner Sharon Meieran, who spent the past month advocating for her own plan, known as the Six Month Framework to Reduce Harm for People Living Outside.

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As proposed by Kafoury, the budget includes $52 million from the Metro Supportive Housing Services bond measure — the first installment of an expected $1 billion over the bond’s lifetime —and raises the Joint Office of Homeless Service’s yearly budget to $150 million, equivalent to the funding provided to the Sheriff’s Office. The $52 million sum is enough cash to offer permanent housing to 1,300 households via rent vouchers and supportive housing, according to Kafoury.

But Commissioner Meieran made her case in the press for more funding of alternative shelters, such as tiny house villages and RV parking lots, saying 25 such camps could house an additional 1,000 people for just $9 million, the Portland Mercury reported.

Meieran’s budget amendment, which also included new mental health teams, didn’t reach the finish line.

“Rather than get down to action and put our money where our mouth is, we have seemed to be striving to find reasons not to invest in the public health and humanitarian crisis that has unfolded on our streets,” she said.

Amendments that were approved during a virtual board meeting include:

• $1.5 million to offset capacity expansion of culturally specific organizations during the pandemic
• $211,000 to expand Legal Services Day, which offers court fee waivers in exchange for community service
• $300,000 for a gun violence prevention pilot program
• $160,000 to increase air quality and decrease wood smoke
• $250,000 for services for senior citizens with HIV

The fiscal year 2022 budget runs from July 2021 through June 2022.

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