Portland City Council voted against including funds in the 2021-22 city budget that would have allowed the city's Portland Street Response pilot program to expand citywide within the year.
Commissioners made the decision during a Thursday council meeting on Mayor Ted Wheeler's $5.7 billion proposed city budget, which Wheeler initially released on April 29. The Thursday meeting focused on amendments city commissioners want to see added to Wheeler's proposed budget. One of those amendments, proposed by City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, focused on putting $3.6 million towards Portland Street Response, a program housed within Portland Fire and Rescue that provides non-police emergency response to 911 calls related to mental health crises or regarding unhoused people. The program is currently operating as a pilot confined to a one-van team of four people, made up of mental health clinicians and emergency medical technicians, in Southeast Portland's Lents Neighborhood. The year-long pilot, which was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic's hiring delays, began in mid-February.
During the city's last budget cycle, City Council voted to move $4.8 million from the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) into a reserve fund for Portland Street Response. Wheeler's proposed budget suggests allocating just under $1 million of that fund to Portland Street Response, to allow the program to complete the year-long pilot in Lents. Hardesty's $3.6 million boost would have used those reserve funds to allow the pilot to expand to a citywide program with six teams starting in March 2022, a month after the pilot concludes. City Commissioner Carmen Rubio voted in support of the plan.
Wheeler and city commissioners Mingus Mapps and Dan Ryan voted against Hardesty's amendment out of concern that the pilot needs to be evaluated by City Council before ramping up to cover the entire city.
"We are completely committed to expanding this program as soon as possible, but I can tell you there are pieces of this program that we have not figured out yet," said Mapps, whose office oversees the Bureau of Emergency Communications (BOEC), which manages the city's 911 call center. "It is possible for government programs to fail... and if it does, I think we will have lost one of the most exciting policy opportunities of a generation."
The dissenting commissioners instead emphasized their support of another amendment that requires that Portland Street Response meets with City Council when the pilot reaches its six-month mark and year-mark. The amendment, introduced by Wheeler, asks those meetings to include "reporting about the pilot's performance against key metrics."
"I have one priority, and it's outcomes," said Wheeler, explaining his position Thursday. "There are far too many people on the streets of this city who struggle under the burden of a wholly inadequate mental health system, and they bear the burden of it. My number one priority, above all, is the outcome for those individuals that live on those streets."
Requiring Portland Street Response to analyze these outcomes isn't a new idea. When the Portland Street Response was approved by City Council in late 2019, it included a plan for staff to check in with Council at the pilot's six-month mark. It also required that the program partnered with Portland State University's (PSU) Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative to evaluate the success of the pilot program as it rolls out. The PSU program has already been collecting this data, and was awarded $200,000 by City Council to conduct a 15-month evaluation of the program last month.
Hardesty expressed frustration with her fellow commissioners for looking past these already agreed-upon standards to withhold the full funding.
"I agree with all my colleagues that say we need to do it right," said Hardesty. "We have a plan to do it right. Now we're changing the rules halfway in."
Without the access to the full $3.6 million to ramp up Portland Street Response, Hardesty said that the program may be forced to halt in February 2022—and be further delayed as Council analyzes its progress.
Ryan suggested commissioners revaluate the dispersal of the program's full funding during City Council's fall budget monitoring process—a moment where commissioners review and make adjustments to the current year's budget. Wheeler echoed this idea, and pushed back on public comment critiquing his proposed allocation for the Portland Street Response.
"I'm not trying to be cheap, I'm trying to get it right," Wheeler said. "[City Council] agreed to the pilot. I fully funded what we agreed to in this pilot. And yet it's now being pitched as going backwards."
Hardesty also raised concerns about a note Wheeler included in his proposed budget about analyzing how the Portland Street Response program should expand going forward, which hinted at possibly outsourcing the work to another organization. Hardesty urged the program remain internal, which she underscored by reading from a letter penned by Portland Street Response staff to City Council.
"What we hear you saying," the letter reads, "is you want to stall the rollout and have more flexibility later on in potentially outsourcing our jobs to a non-profit that would most pay us significantly less. We hear you saying that the less the City commits to institutionalizing Portland Street Response within the Fire bureau now, the less backtracking you'll have to do later on if you decide to outsource us."
Mapps said he was "moved" by the letter, and later introduced an amendment to the budget stressing that Portland Street Response staff will always be paid a "livable wage."
Hardesty called Mapps' amendment "performative," since the program's staff already make a living wage, and said Mapps' solution doesn't genuinely address the letter's concerns of staff being outsourced in the future. Mapps' amendment failed.
Hardesty used the same logic her colleagues used to oppose her Portland Street Response amendment to successfully wrangle support of another contentious amendment. Hardesty suggested halting the proposed budget's expansion of the Public Safety Support Specialist program (annoyingly dubbed "PS3"), a 3-year-old department of unarmed PPB staff that help officers follow up on property crime, traffic accidents, and any other non-violent crimes.
Wheeler's proposed budget aimed to add 22 PS3 staff to PPB, tripling the number of employees from 11 to 33. Hardesty's amendment suggested delaying the hire of 12 of those 22 staff members "until a program evaluation is performed." The similarities between this request and the ones of Portland Street Response weren't lost on Hardesty's colleagues.
"This is consistent with the methodical approach that we've been talking about with Portland Street Response, and it's important to stay consistent," said Ryan, before voting in support of Hardesty's amendment. The amendment passed without the votes of Wheeler and Mapps.
These were just a sliver of the nearly 45 amendments introduced by commissioners during Thursday's 6-hour council meeting. Here are a few notable amendments to the proposed budget that got commissioners' approval:
- $165,000 to cover the launch of the planned Portland Police Oversight Committee, the committee that was approved by voters in November 2020. The committee intends to mandate officer discipline and compel officer testimony during an investigation—along with other privileges that are currently off limits for people outside of law enforcement. This amendment, proposed by Wheeler, would cover the cost of a full-time employee to oversee the creation of this committee, which has still yet to be formed.
- $3 million to fund the continuation of the city's alternative homeless shelters that were created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hardesty raised concerns with this amendment because the proposed budget already sent $2 million to the Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS, which is overseen by both the city and Multnomah County) for homeless shelters. Hardesty said that JOHS should have budgeted for this funding on its own, instead of relying on the city to help."This is unworkable," said Hardesty of the city's relationship with JOHS. "This is unmanageable. And this is no way to run a partnership." She ultimately supported the amendment, acknowledging the dire need to keep the outdoor shelters running.
- $250,000 to support a "Truth and Reconciliation process," which refers to the intention for PPB and the community to work together to confront the city's history of racist policing. This process is something the Portland Committee on Community-Engaged Policing (PCCEP), the group of community members tasked with overseeing PPB's community engagement work, recommended City Council invest in two years ago. "I don’t see how we build trust with the community until we really have a meaningful process like this," said Wheeler, before casting his vote in support of the amendment.
- $1.7 million in one-time funding and $480,000 in ongoing funding to make sure the city can uphold it's side of a settlement agreement with the US Department of Justice (DOJ). The city entered the legal agreement in 2014, after a DOJ investigation found that PPB officers were routinely using excessive force against people with mental illness. The settlement included reforms such as creating a streamlined police accountability system, training officers to use less physical force, and requiring detailed reports from officers after they use force. In February, the DOJ announced that Portland was no longer in compliance with this agreement due to the heavy-handed way police treated racial justice protesters in 2020. This budget amendment funds programs meant to bring the city back into compliance under the DOJ agreement, including: $582,000 to cover PPB overtime costs to train all PPB officers on crowd control policies, $433,000 to purchase Office 365 and other related materials to ensure officers keep better track of when they use force on members of the public, $480,000 to hire two lawyers to support the City Attorney's work on the settlement agreement, and other costs.
- $50,000 to increase one-time funding for the City African American Network (CAAN), a group that represents Black city employees. The funding is meant to support a section of Wheeler's budget that directs the city’s human resources department create a program that will improve “recruitment, retention, and promotion” of Black employees. The support comes after CAAN released a report in March showing that the city has lost more than 40 percent of its Black employees since 2019. Several representatives from CAAN spoke during the public comment section of Thursday's meeting, urging commissioners to truly value their work. Marvin Dean, who sits on CAAN's leadership team, told commissioners that he's heard "A lot of rhetoric around core values," after CAAN released its report, "but little substance around actions and follow-through." Dean noted that the amendment is a good start towards work to retain Black staff.
- $3,509,000 to fund Portland Bureau of Transportation's "Healthy Business Program," which disperses permits to businesses that want to expand their services into public right-of-ways to meet social distancing requirements. In short, this allows for restaurants to set up outdoor dining in parking spots and sidewalks—and even streets—during the pandemic. If you stopped by SE 28th and Ash last summer, you know what this is.
- A requirement that the already proposed $5.2 million in one-time funds for PPB to swiftly hire 30 officers only be used to hire and pay for those 30 officers. Hardesty proposed this amendment to guarantee that, if PPB didn't hire the 30 officers in the budget period, the bureau didn't use those dollars for another expense. "I have the experience of knowing that if it's in the police bureau's budget, they'll spend it, and we'll never see it again," Hardesty said, explaining the need for the amendment.
City commissioners voted to approve the majority of the proposed amendments by the meeting's 8:15 pm finish. Wheeler closed the meeting on a conciliatory note. "Nobody gets everything they want in the budget," he said. "I believe we're protecting progress that's been made in the past as well as pushing forward in new areas."
The public will have another opportunity to comment on the budget before it's adopted during a City Council hearing the afternoon of June 9. City Council will vote to adopt the budget on June 17. The budget goes into effect on July 1.