Portland City Council plans to retract funding promised to spur Black economic resilience

By Alex Zielinski (OPB)
April 18, 2023 12:25 a.m.

A plan crafted amid 2020′s racial justice reckoning hasn’t turned out the way either city leaders or civic activists intended.

At the height of Portland’s racial justice protests in 2020, Portland City Council members made a series of specific budget investments and cuts to reflect their support of the movement centered on police accountability and racial equity.

One was a recurring annual $1.9 million commitment to a new anti-racist organization called Reimagine Oregon. The money, which came out from the city’s cannabis tax fund, was intended for Reimagine Oregon to use to spur economic growth and stability for Black Portlanders.


Mayor Ted Wheeler characterized this specific investment as the “centerpiece” of his budget proposal at the time.

Nearly three years after making that commitment, Reimagine Oregon leaders say they haven’t received a penny. And now, the city is making sure they never do.

On Wednesday, Portland City Council is expected to retract all cannabis tax money previously reserved for Reimagine Oregon in a budget vote. The proposal to redirect the money comes as an affront to those who trusted the city was interested in supporting its Black community in 2020.

“All of this totally flies in the face of the equity strategy and goals that the city says it adheres to.” Justice Rajee, director of Reimagine Oregon, said. “It’s hurtful.”

The spirit of 2020

Reimagine Oregon began in July 2020 as a volunteer-led coalition of Black leaders calling on local and state officials to pass anti-racist policies, like decriminalizing fare violations on public transit and removing police officers from schools. The organization formed under the nonprofit Urban League of Portland, which offers some organizational support and funding. In August 2021, they hired Rajee to lead the new group. He remains the only staff member.

In June 2020, the city council made a number of concrete steps inspired by the racial justice movement sparked by George Floyd’s May murder. Those included a $15 million cut to the Portland Police Bureau and a plan to redistribute that money to other city programs. The process continued in November 2020, when city leaders met to make adjustments to the June budget.

A proposal introduced by Wheeler would give Reimagine Oregon two pots of money. The first was $1.5 million from the police budget that would allow Reimagine Oregon to gather feedback from Portland’s Black community on how city dollars could best support Black Portlanders. The city defined this as a “process that seeks to promote anti-racist investments by expanding economic opportunities, wealth creation, and restorative justice to communities that have been disproportionately impacted by police violence, mass incarceration, cannabis prohibition, and the criminal legal system.” These investments could be anything from small business grants to money to help people clear criminal records, depending on what the community recommended.

The second $1.9 million came from the city’s cannabis fund, which is money from a citywide 3% tax on cannabis sales that can be used to support public safety, substance abuse programs, or small businesses. This funding was intended for Reimagine Oregon to invest in Black Portlanders after gathering community input on where the money should go. City leaders promised to make a recurring $1.9 million contribution to a fund that would be used as directed by the Black community.

Reimagine Oregon organizers initially weren’t interested in taking the city’s dollars. According to Rajee, Reimagine Oregon’s leadership was “concerned that the city was only choosing to invest these dollars as a trick to make them look good during a time of public outcry and waste our time.” The organization only agreed to accept the money after city leaders insisted that their commitment was genuine. Reimagine Oregon organizers hoped the process to grant Black Portlanders the ability to help decide how city dollars should be spent would serve as a model for how civic institutions should engage with Portland’s Black community in the future.

But when it came time for Reimagine Oregon to use the city’s funds, the process began to break down. According to Rajee, the city never offered an official grant agreement to Reimagine Oregon — a document that must be signed before the city sends any money to an outside organization. Despite repeated requests to the Office of Community and Civic Life, which oversees the cannabis funds, Rajee said he wasn’t able to secure an agreement.

A spokesperson for the Office of Community and Civic Life said that their agency was not in total control of the funds and noted that many staff members who were initially involved in the process have left the city.

Some of that money initially promised has reached the organization. In December 2022, Reimagine Oregon signed an agreement with the city to accept the $1.5 million from the police bureau promised two years’ prior to gather Black Portlanders’ input on how eventual funding should be equitably distributed. But the city has yet to hand over the millions in cannabis funds promised to actually fund the chosen investments.


A new plan

Due to the annual accumulation of cannabis funds promised in 2020, Reimagine Oregon now has just under $5 million set aside by the city for it to use. But the advocacy group has no way to actually access that money.

It’s that pot of money that City Commissioner Mingus Mapps called attention to during an April 12 city council meeting, at which commissioners were proposing mid-year adjustments to the annual budget. Seeing that the funds for Reimagine Oregon hadn’t been used, Mapps suggested reallocating them.

“Since 2020, Reimagine Oregon has struggled to get these dollars out the door,” Mapps said.

Mapps, the only Black member of Portland City Council, did not acknowledge the fact that the funding had never reached Reimagine Oregon in the first place at the meeting. Instead, he pressed Rajee to detail what projects the money has supported. Rajee explained that his organization hasn’t received any of the promised dollars.

Rajee characterized Mapps’ line of questioning as “disingenuous,” especially since he had sent an email to all city commissioners two days prior detailing the status of those funds.

When asked by OPB, Mapps did not say whether or not he knew Reimagine Oregon hadn’t received any city funding prior to the budget meeting. In an email, Mapps simply reiterated, “The funding was earmarked for a participatory budgeting project for Reimagine Oregon, which has not gotten off the ground to this day.”

Mapps put forward a budget amendment last week to return the accumulated $4,900,000 to the city’s pool of cannabis tax funding available for any outside organizations that apply for it and win city approval. Mapps noted that the money may be better spent on public safety programs or substance abuse treatment.

Rajee said that creating programs to build wealth in the local Black community can directly address the issues Mapps’ raised.

“To say that these things are in opposition is callous and distasteful,” Rajee said.

Other leaders in Portland’s Black community say the decision erodes any trust the city had previously earned.

“Portlanders, and especially communities of color in Portland, have extremely little faith in our local government. The reason why is decisions like these,” Marcus Mundy, director of the Coalition of Communities of Color and one of Reimagine Oregon’s founding members, told city leaders last week. “When we see our elected officials commit to solving a problem like persistent racial injustice, only to yank that support we wonder where the vision and commitment to bettering our city is.”

Mapps’ won support from Commissioners Rene Gonzalez and Dan Ryan, making a majority on the five-member council.

Mayor Wheeler voted against the proposal, saying that he believes the city is close to getting the set-aside money passed through to Reimagine Oregon. Commissioner Carmen Rubio also rejected the plan, placing blame on the city for not following through on its commitment to the Black community.

“The amendment in front of us today… it breaks community trust and undermines the community’s key goal for this money — to be in control of the decision-making process,” Rubio said.

Rajee said he’s disappointed and that the upcoming vote shows that Reimagine Oregon leaders were right to be wary of the city’s financial offer in 2020. He believes Mapps’ framing of Reimagine Oregon’s work threatens the group’s future success.

“This stunt proves to be a part of a repeated pattern of institutional racism where [the] Black community gets blamed for poor behavior the city is doing and trying to hide,” Rajee said.

Rubio and Wheeler voted against Mapps’ amendment, but the proposal moved forward with the majority of the council’s support. On Wednesday, commissioners will hold a second vote on the budget package. It’s expected to pass.