More than 70 residents shared their priorities for Multnomah County’s fiscal year 2021 budget with the Board of County Commissioners at the second and final public budget hearing on May 27. Among the themes residents shared with the Board were opposition to funding several law enforcement programs in the Sheriff’s Office and calls for more funds to be allocated for social service programs that support residents of color.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the County held virtual budget hearings this year. Thirty residents submitted written comments and 46 signed up to speak for two minutes each to commissioners at the May 27 evening hearing.
Focus on communities of color
The County partnered with the Coalition of Communities of Color to host the hearing in order to focus on the needs of communities of color and other historically underrepresented groups in the county. The Coalition’s Advocacy Director Andrea Valderrama was the first to testify, encouraging the Board to adopt a budget that funds a COVID-19 response that prioritizes the needs of people of color, who have felt disproportionately severe health and financial impacts of the pandemic.
She said the pandemic presents an opportunity to build a more equitable community. “We should not go ‘back to normal’ after this pandemic. That wasn’t working for us,” she said, referring to the structural inequity that harms people of color.
The Board heard testimony from several people who work at local agencies that serve people of color and have seen new needs arise during the pandemic. Daphne Jean Auza works with immigrants and refugees as a community navigator for the nonprofit Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization. She said many of her clients depend on county social services and are facing the threat of deportation and changing federal policies that are hard for non-English speakers to track.
Michael DeSantis with Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon urged the Board to fund housing for houseless youth, “many of whom are people of color who are more at risk of catching COVID-19.”
Others who testified have been clients or employees of local agencies that have served people of color for many years, but are experiencing new challenges due to COVID-19. Blakely Gilbert is a former justice-involved individual who wrestled with a substance use disorder and was able to turn his life around through Volunteers of America’s Men’s Resource Center, a residential program that provides addiction services. “The pandemic has isolated many former addicts and made life more difficult for them,” he said.
Several speakers sought funding for new programs that are meeting important community needs. Andrew Brown asked for funding for Metro Homeshare, which provides affordable housing for low income seniors who rent portions of homes from seniors who own their home.
Opposition to law enforcement spending
Northeast Portland resident Mel was one of several speakers from the Portland chapter of Black and Pink who opposed a 4 percent budget increase sought by the Sheriff’s Office. “Jails are vectors for COVID-19,” she said, and suggested that funds would be better spent on housing and health services.
That view was seconded by a laid-off teacher named Scout, who lives in North Portland. “This deficit is an opportunity for us to decide what deserves funding and what does not,” she said. She urged the Board to not fund law enforcement sweeps of homeless camps, electronic monitoring for parolees, body cameras, and jail dorms. “Instead we should focus on peer-led social services,” she said.
To accommodate the diverse speakers and listeners online, simultaneous interpretation was provided in four languages and in American Sign Language.
County Chair Deborah Kafoury thanked residents for sharing their views and noted the special urgency of this year’s budget process. “This year's budget is profoundly shaped by the County's response to COVID-19 over the last few months,” she said, “as well as our plans to continue supporting our community through, and eventually recovering from, this crisis. As the pandemic has touched every corner of our community with unprecedented challenges, your voice is especially critical to the budget process this year.”
Residents can still share their comments with commissioners about the budget by using the online form at multco.us/budgetfeedback, by contacting commissioners directly or by submitting comments at the June 23 County board meeting where the budget will be adopted.
A virtual public hearing will also be held on June 9 at 9:30 am by the Tax Supervising and Conservation Commission. To read or download the proposed budget, visit multco.us/budget.