“I appreciate all of your investments”: Social services take center stage at second hearing on County’s 2020 budget

May 14, 2019

At a County budget hearing May 8, 2019.
Roy Moore spoke about the “addiction and desperation” that once marked his life. Until the day he went into detox and started working his way through Central City Concern’s Recovery Mentor Program.

The program provided counseling and housing. It gave him a community of peers who could help each other be accountable in their recovery. And it offered him the training and support he needed, through Central City Concern’s Employment Access Program, to build a career.

Today, Moore works for the city of Portland’s Office of Youth Violence Prevention. He’s on community boards and serves as a youth coach. He’s even rebuilt his credit and will soon be in the market to buy a home of his own.

“I was given the opportunity to really work on myself,” Moore said. “The Recovery Mentor Program saved my life.”

Noelle Charriel, another veteran of the program, traced a similar arc for her recovery. Thanks to the program, she’s 16 months sober, and working a job she loves while reconnecting with her family. She said she knows 15 other people who’ve made the same journey through the program.

“It’s been an amazing experience,” she said. “That’s 15 families who have their person back, and 15 children who have their parents back. I wouldn’t be able to say any of that without the Recovery Mentor Program.”

Moore and Charriel were among more than two dozen people who spoke May 8 at the second of four public hearings on Chair Deborah Kafoury’s proposed $2 billion budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year.

Many came to thank commissioners for their ongoing investments in crucial social services programs. But others brought forward heartfelt requests to continue programs that could be affected next year as the County wrestles with a growing structural deficit and revenue uncertainty.  

Difficult tradeoffs

The Chair’s budget plan would preserve the County’s investments in homelessness services, SUN schools, and voter access. It also calls for funding the County’s Workforce Equity Strategic Plan, investing in a new student health center at Reynolds High School and setting aside $11 million to purchase the future home of a mental health resource center in downtown Portland.

But the budget proposal calls for difficult tradeoffs, too.

It would reduce the Health Department’s Harm Reduction program, which provides medical care and outreach to people who use intravenous drugs through a wound care clinic and syringe exchange sites. It also would pull back on an immigration legal defense fund started in 2017 and eliminate positions in the Sheriff’s Office, including a forensics lab and a sergeant who works directly in the jail to address human trafficking.

Cassie Trahan was among several speakers who urged the Board to preserve that position. She and advocates said the sergeant’s work, outside the reach of pimps and traffickers, creates space to gather intelligence for investigations and build relationships with women that can sustain them on the outside.

“If we lose that, we’re stepping way back” on preventing sex trafficking, Trahan said.

Emilie Junge also urged commissioners to consider prevention as they weigh the future of the Health Department’s harm reduction portfolio.

“At a time when the opioid overdose epidemic is increasing, this is really the wrong time to cut these programs,” said Junge, who said she had worked as an attorney in Chicago. “I see firsthand the social and financial cost of this epidemic and the need for an intervention at every level.”

Maintaining core services

Even as County revenues grow, the County’s expenses are growing faster. That gap is forecast to grow to $35 million within five years, in part because of rising personnel costs, but also largely because revenues are artificially limited.

At a County budget hearing May 8, 2019.
The largest source of funding the Board can allocate comes from property taxes. But voters passed ballot measures in the 1990s that capped property taxes — meaning they aren’t keeping pace with the region’s growth and don’t reflect the true value of Portland’s unprecedented development boom.

Chair Kafoury made clear last month, when unveiling her budget plan, that she had to balance that reality, proposing some reductions while maintaining core services and even making new investments in response to emerging needs.

Among those priorities was continuing the County’s record spending on homelessness services, proposed at more than $26.5 million next fiscal year. Last year, the Joint Office of Homeless Services helped nearly 6,000 people leave homelessness for permanent housing, double the number four years before.

Alexandra Appleton, who manages the 120-bed Willamette Center shelter for Transition Projects, told the Board she wanted them to hear “firsthand” how their investments supported people and saved lives.

Recently, she said, Transition Projects was able to work with a man who’d been homeless for 16 years, facing cognitive challenges that made housing a struggle to obtain. Workers got him the support services and benefits he needed to not only return to housing, but stay there. And it was just in time, Appleton said. Soon after, his wife was diagnosed with a serious illness and needed surgery.

“As a consumer and provider of those services,” Appleton said, “it’s really important that we have safer places like shelters and and also the support services. The long-term ability for people to remain stable is tremendous. I live and breathe this work. I appreciate all of your investments.”

The board is scheduled to vote on a final budget May 30.