June 30, 2020
Dear friends and neighbors,
The pace of change continues to be swift. Every night since my last newsletter, thousands of Oregonians and people across the country have continued to take to the streets, demanding justice for Black lives. Multnomah County has been poised to reopen, has been put on pause, and is now in Phase 1. Positive case counts have shown sharp increases, here and elsewhere.
It’s confusing, it’s exhausting, and it’s also an opportunity. COVID and the protests continue to show us that when we truly understand that our individual health and safety are connected to our neighbors’ health and safety, we come together and we act for the public good. And when that happens, change is possible.
COVID; Multnomah County Reopening
As you all know, positive case counts continue to rise, in the County and across the state. The rate of positive tests -- that is, the percentage of total tests that is positive -- is also going up, indicating that the increase in numbers is not just due to increased testing, but also to increased spread. And Black, Indigenous, and people of color continue to test positive at disproportionate rates, with a recent sharp spike in certain immigrant and refugee communities. Our regional dashboard provides more detail on these trends.
One of the other trends our Public Health Department is observing is that outbreaks are increasingly occurring through social spread, in family or friend groups. On the chart below, household groups are shown in the coral color -- you can see the marked increase for the weeks of June 7 and 14.
The news about what lies ahead is sobering. The most recent modeling indicates that an exponential increase in spread is likely. Of the three projected scenarios - optimistic, moderate, and pessimistic -- the moderate scenario projects 910 new infections per day and 27 new hospitalizations per day by July 16th. Governor Brown has warned that if the current trends continue, she may shut the economy down again.
All of this reminds us that even when with close family and friends, we must continue to take precautions -- do your socializing outdoors whenever possible; stay six feet apart, and always wear a face covering when indoors (as is now required) or when you cannot maintain six feet of distance.
Multnomah County FY 2021 Budget
Amidst all of this, we passed our budget last week. This was only my second budget, but others who have been at this for much longer cannot remember a more complicated one.
This budget was created as we have been experiencing two near-seismic shifts: first, the COVID pandemic. And then, our community’s awakening to the profound and even more destructive pandemic of racism -- the one that led to the murder of George Floyd, and that underlies the disproportionate health and economic impacts of COVID.
The budget we adopted is responsive to both these shifts: it includes a thorough, holistic COVID response that centers on the needs of our most affected communities; and it includes initial steps toward reallocation of resources from law enforcement to social services.
As I’ve mentioned in previous newsletters, our COVID response included a significant reduction in the County jail population, in order to be able to maintain physical distancing. The reduction was accomplished primarily by eliminating pre-trial detention for low level offenders. Flowing from this reduction, we were able to close a jail dorm and make some personnel cuts to the District Attorney’s and Sheriff’s budgets. We also eliminated all supervision fees -- charges that can pose significant barriers to people leaving jail or prison and re-entering community.
The savings realized from these cuts were invested in upstream prevention programs including health care, early childhood, and youth development; and in programs that support people in successfully re-entering community after release from jail or prison. Two particular priorities that I advocated for were a SUN School expansion to Kairos PDX, a K-5 charter school that serves predominantly Black, Latinx, and other students of color; and restoration of some funding for youth employment and training programs which had taken a significant cut in the Chair’s executive budget. Additional detail about the budget can be found here.
While the law enforcement cuts we made did not go nearly as far as those requested by protesters and the thousands of people who emailed us about the County budget, I believe they are a solid step in the right direction, and that they are a beginning. In addition to the cuts, we initiated several significant policy review initiatives. I requested the following:
Analysis of our use of electronic monitoring: While electronic monitoring reduces reliance on jail, by allowing people on parole or probation to be released, we need to learn much more about its effectiveness and impact on racial equity. Scholars like Michelle Alexander have argued that electronic monitoring actually increases the carceral footprint, is unnecessary, and impedes reentry.
Analysis of the use of jail labor: Oregon law does not require payment for jail labor. Multnomah County’s ordinances require payment but limits it to $2 per day. Policy rationales for limiting payment include the argument that it is a way of making inmates pay their debt to society. In my view, accountability is provided by the fact that they are detained; and if they work, they should be paid fairly for that work.
Development of budget metrics that show racial and ethnic impact and equity: Our current budget metrics are not disaggregated by race and ethnicity, making it difficult to evaluate program impact on racial equity. Multnomah County is committed to advancing racial justice. In order to assess whether our programs are moving us toward that goal, the Board needs to be able to assess racial impacts, and these should be transparent to the public.
In the Community
The past month offered chances to speak and testify on issues important to me, and to connect with constituents. Among other things, I joined my colleague Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson on a panel about women and politics organized by the Center for Women’s Leadership; testified before the Portland Public School Board in support of including the renovation of Jefferson High School in its next bond measure; spoke at an Asian Black Lives Matter rally commemorating the death of Vincent Chin, beaten to death in 1982; and held a zoom "coffee" attended by around 50 people. While I miss in-person constituent events, I'm realizing that virtual events have their benefits -- ease of attendance, for one. If you belong to a group or association that would be interested in connecting with me, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I’d welcome the opportunity.
In the meantime, wear your face-covering, stay safe, and stay healthy.