Portland is on the verge of hitting “reset” on an ambitious but troubled climate action program that aims to make sure communities of color and lower-income residents aren’t left behind.
On Wednesday, the Portland City Council is set to vote on a major overhaul to the Portland Clean Energy Fund. City Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who proposed the reforms, said the changes reflect lessons learned since the inception of the fund. They also aim to address transparency and accountability concerns that were flagged by a city audit earlier this year.
“A lot of this was informed by the practice about some things that — we know what was working well,” she said. “We know what places there were gaps.”
A vote of approval could mark a new beginning for a program that’s faced several challenges this past year. Rubio’s restructuring drew unified support from all sides at its only public hearing, held last week. That suggests the fund can turn a new page and begin to see bigger climate investments in the communities it is intended for.
The Portland Clean Energy Fund was created by a voter-approved ballot measure in 2018. It has been celebrated as a first-of-its-kind environmental justice program created and led by communities of color.
The fund receives revenue from a tax imposed on retail businesses. It is projected to reach $402 million by the end of the next fiscal year — far outpacing the initial estimates that it would generate between $40 million and $60 million a year.
The fund’s rocky start began when its first multi-million dollar grant had to be withdrawn after the recipient group’s leader’s past — including a conviction for fraud and a string of unpaid tax bills — came to light. That led to additional reviews for grants applications.
In March, the city’s watchdog agency issued an audit that found a lack of oversight and accountability systems and clear climate-action goals. That prompted the Portland Business Alliance to call for a freeze of the program’s spending.
The proposed overhaul creates clear climate action goals, while outlining a five-year plan that includes more tree planting, weatherizing homes and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector. The changes also allow government entities and schools to apply for grants. And they restructure how responsibilities for the program are shared between Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and the fund’s advisory committee.
Many groups and members of the public have expressed support for the proposed overhaul. The once-critical Portland Business Alliance is calling the proposed changes “transformational” and is optimistic that the new version will work.
“We are energized and committed to work with all stakeholders, including front line communities, toward what we believe could be the first clean industry hub in the nation,” said Jon Isaacs, the alliance’s vice president for public affairs.
The Coalition of Communities of Color, an original advocate for the clean energy fund, is also onboard. Its executive director, Marcus Mundy, said as the changes are put in place, it will be important to continue to prioritize communities of color and low-income people. He called for the city to work more closely with communities most impacted by climate change.
“More investments are good, but just and righteous investments are better,” he said.
One of the proposal’s most applauded changes is the creation of a tree canopy program that would spend $40 million over the next five years to shrink or eliminate east Portland’s shadeless, concrete-and-asphalt areas. Last year’s deadly heat dome claimed dozens of lives in these kinds of places – known as “heat islands” – where many were found home alone and with no air conditioning units.
These pockets and corridors of urban hardscape, like freeways, parking lots, industrial buildings, absorb heat and radiate it. Research shows that green spaces, including shade-providing trees, help.
The clean energy fund’s program manager since its inception, Sam Baraso, worked with the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, which Rubio oversees, to come up with the proposed changes. Baraso said the changes reflect feedback from the community and from grantees on what has been working well and what needs to be adjusted as the fund continues to grow.
“Some things we needed to clean up, tighten, clarify definitions and then there’s just been a tremendous room for opportunity to create more flexibility,” he said.
That flexibility, Baraso said, would allow the fund’s managers to respond more quickly to community needs when extreme weather events occur.
If the Portland City Council approves the proposed changes, two projects — tree canopy expansion and residential clean-energy retrofits — would be implemented immediately. The fund’s committee will then spend nine months working out the details before any changes take effect.