County’s 2017 budget makes big investment in housing, mental health, youth

May 26, 2016

The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners at its May 26 meeting.
The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners at its May 26 meeting.

The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners Thursday passed its 2017 budget, enabling the county to launch a regional office on homelessness, invest millions in housing services, and pilot a new program to divert people experiencing mental health crisis from ending up in jail.

“This year’s budget is one I think we can all be proud of,” said Commissioner Diane McKeel, who finishes her final term on the board in December. “I am hopeful for the conversation and decisions this budget is going to help us have.”

The $1.87 billion budget allows for the same level of ongoing spending for the next three years, and tops off the county’s reserve funds. Most of that money comes from federal and state governments while a smaller portion called the General Fund is collected locally, mostly from property, business and rental vehicle taxes.

Of the $583 million in the 2017 General Fund, a quarter is dedicated to the county’s Health Department, which provides physical, behavioral and environmental health services to thousands of people each year. A fifth of the General Fund, about $120 million, will go to operate jails and patrol services in the Sheriff’s Office.

The approved budget includes a central pillar of Chair Deborah Kafoury’s administration: more than $10 million in emergency and stable housing services and resources to launch and staff a new office of homelessness that brings together Multnomah County and the City of Portland. It’s an investment, she said, that “will make a significant impact in the lives of Multnomah County residents who are facing a housing crisis unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”

Commissioner Jules Bailey applauded Chair Kafoury’s “unwavering commitment” to reducing

homelessness in the county, and applauded the board for investing in programs and projects for which the current board might not reap the praise, including $20 million towards the building of a seismically safe Central Courthouse.

“This budget, while not satisfying every need, accomplishes so much,” he said.

That includes giving law enforcement more options on how to respond to people with mental illness. The budget redirects about nine percent of the sheriff’s budget for jail beds - beds that too often are filled by people experiencing a mental health crisis, but who have no other safe and secure place to go.

Instead, a team of mental health specialists will intervene after people are arrested, but before they’re booked in jail. After a mental health screening, those in need of treatment can be redirected for care and other services.

“Jail misuse and over-incarceration takes a toll on our community and comes at a great cost to taxpayers with little benefit to public safety,” said Commissioner Judy Shiprack, a staunch advocate of criminal justice reform and who, like McKeel and Bailey, will finish her tenure on the board in December.

The budget doubles the county’s investment in the teen internship program SummerWorks, a partnership between public and private employers and Worksystems Inc. Last year, the program which employed 700 young people last year at 159 worksites across Multnomah and Washington counties. Nearly 4,000 teens - many of them low-income teens, teens of color and immigrant teens-- have landed paying jobs since SummerWorks launched in 2009.

This summer the county will sponsor 1,000 young people - double last year's investment- thanks to Commissioner Loretta Smith who has long advocated the jobs program for disadvantaged youth.

“Growing this critical program has been one of my consistent priorities since assuming office,” she said. “I am so proud to see this program continue to connect young people with the professional skills and training as they become our next generation of leaders.”

Chair Kafoury choked up as she thanked her colleagues on the board, then cleared her throat.

“Public service isn’t about making speeches or building up your resume,” she said. “It’s about holding our government accountable and ensuring that the decisions we make put the people first and improve their lives. I think that the budget before us does that.”