Homelessness, mental health and children: Multnomah County puts its values at heart of $2 billion budget

May 25, 2017

Chair Deborah Kafoury praised a focused, committed board for navigating many needs and much uncertainty in adopting a $2 billion budget that prioritizes the homeless, mental health and children.

“This budget has some difficult trade-offs,’’ the Chair said on Thursday. “But in all my years at Multnomah County, I’ve never seen a budget process that was this collaborative and congenial. All of my colleagues took a good budget and made it even better.”

The Board unanimously approved the 2018 spending road map after four community-centered public hearings, 14 public work sessions and some last minute debate. Among the priorities that emerged:

  • A nearly $20 million ongoing commitment to housing and helping seniors, families and veterans who are homeless. In addition, the county has allocated more than $4 million in one-time investments for youth and family homelessness services, including revenue from the sale of foreclosed properties.  

  • Investments in mental health and addiction services, with $589,000 to add health department staff in jails and $211,078 for opioid overdose response training and naloxone.

  • $4.7 million to improve the crisis network for rent assistance and to improve housing for youths and families facing extreme poverty or displacement.

  • $25 million in targeted infrastructure projects, including the Central Courthouse and Health Department Headquarters, that will provide family-wage jobs and replace outdated and unsafe buildings and infrastructure.

  • A $750,000 investment in the LEAD program, throughout the budget, that will reduce reliance on jail cells.

The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners at its May 25 meeting.

The Board also made tough cuts, including eliminating more than 112 full-time positions, many of them in the Health Department’s clinic system. The department has been aggressively working to use retirement, transfers and vacancies to minimize actual layoffs.

The budget also eliminates the Sheriff’s Warrant Strike Team to save $750,000 and calls for the ramp down and eventual closure of the Londer Learning Center, saving about $1 million over the next two years.

The Chair had asked every department to take a 2 percent reduction and urged them to make decisions that “put people ahead of programs.’” The Board also offered amendments that reflected their priorities.

The Chair lauded the values of her fellow board members. She commended Commissioner Lori Stegmann for her “laser focus on east County,’’ including more than $200,000 to foster a new collaboration between the Health Department and east County school districts in assessing and planning for future school-based health centers.

Chair Kafoury thanked Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson for championing a continued $100,000 investment in support for our immigrant and refugee communities and $40,000 to support air quality regulatory options.

She praised Commissioner Loretta Smith’s “unwavering dedication to supporting young people who often face inequitable access to education and work opportunities.” Commissioner Loretta Smith championed the funding of SummerWorks for 650 jobs for youths; $150,000 for historically disadvantaged and minority entrepreneurs; and $110,000 for voter education and outreach.

And the Chair said Commissioner Sharon Meieran has quickly and passionately stepped up -- particularly in issues of health and mental health. “I thank her for prioritizing a deeper analysis of how our system works, what mental health services are available and how we can better meet the needs of children, teens, adults and families that are in crisis.”

Commissioner Meieran pushed for $250,000 to support Native American youth and another $250,000 to support people with disabilities or who are seniors through Oregon Project Independence. As she worked through the budget, she said, she strove to incorporate her values. Did it make the mental health system better? Was the county the only place this service existed? Did it feel right in her heart?

“What I’ve learned about the County in the last four months in particular is the dedication of County staff. Their efforts are truly tireless and they could pretty much be at the top of their field if they chose. I am so grateful they chose the County."

Commissioner Smith talked about the importance of supporting voters who speak English as a second language, are low-income or who are immigrants.

“Without access to the ballot those individuals have no power to fight back, but with this outreach, we reaffirm our commitment to a welcoming and inclusive community,’’ Commissioner Smith

“A budget is a reflection of values, and I am proud of the budget Multnomah County adopted today,’’ Commissioner Vega Pederson said. “Our public hearings vividly illustrated how much this work matters. During the budget process, we heard from people who received addiction services and kicked their habits; finally had a warm place to stay on a cold night; were steered from gangs to a more productive path; received vital health services; or were provided a helping hand in another way.”

Finally, Commissioner Stegmann thanked members of the public, county staff and the Board.

“These hearings were immensely beneficial to be able to see the faces and hear the stories. Thank you for the meetings, emails, letters and calls. You made a difference. It is an honor to serve with each of you and show the world what five smart women can do."

Throughout the budget process, the Board faced the uncertainty of state and federal deficits and priorities and the fact that the Portland-area economy, while strong now, is projected to slow as labor costs rise.

In addition to balancing the budget over the next three years, and calling for long-term planning to address the impact of public employee pension obligations, the Board set aside $2.7 million that will help the county respond to state and federal cuts.

“Hopefully,’’ Chair Kafoury said, “that’s all we’ll need.”

With that, the Board approved the budget, and a few minutes later, in their role the Multnomah County Library District Board, commissioners also approved an $89.9 million budget for Multnomah County’s libraries and a $9.2 million capital fund.