Last week, Multnomah County commissioners approved a $3.5 billion budget for the next fiscal year. County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson joins us to discuss the role that the county will play in addressing homelessness, behavioral health, and other challenges facing the region.
Editors note: Chair Vega Pederson misstated the sobering station that has closed. It is Central City Concern Sobering Station that closed in 2019.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We start today with Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson. The county gets less public attention than the city, but it’s actually more responsible for dealing with the biggest issues that the region is facing right now. It has more direct control of the Joint Office of Homeless Services. It’s also more focused on behavioral health issues like substance use disorder and mental illness. Last week, Multnomah County commissioners approved a $3.5 billion budget for the next fiscal year. Jessica Vega Pederson joins us to talk about all of this.
Welcome back to the show.
Jessica Vega Pederson: Hi, Dave. Thanks for having me.
Miller: I want to start with the news that the county only spent less than half of the money allocated for Metro’s Supportive Housing Services Fund over a recent nine-month period. That was just the most recent report. But Willamette Week, back in March, reported sort of the same thing for the first half of the fiscal year, for six months. What did you do when you first learned about that underspending?
Vega Pederson: Yes. As soon as I learned about the underspending, the latest underspending, I released a letter and it really had three concrete steps. And I mean, first of all, the letter [said] this is unacceptable. It’s not the expectations that I have. It’s not the expectations that the taxpayers have for how we need to be using these dollars to get them out to the community. You know, the performance is not meeting the needs of our community and the expectations that I have. So I wanted to make sure that we were really clear on the things that we needed to do in order to change this around.
And the first one was really to come together with the short-term funding opportunities that we had to get this money directly out into the community as soon as possible. And this is something that the Joint Office is putting together in consultation with my staff. We’ve engaged the city in these conversations. We’ve engaged my Board and, of course, Metro in these conversations as well. Like, what are our biggest opportunities to get the money out the door right away. We’re still working on that plan. But a part of that was also my commitment to being collaborative as we’re making these decisions, as we’re making these investments to really look beyond just what’s needed and overall.
Miller: If I may interrupt, I’m a little bit confused about the timing. You’re saying that the letter that I think you’re talking about just came out recently, right? But didn’t you know about this now, three months ago? The underspending is basically the same 50% of spending. But we knew that back in March.
Vega Pederson: Yeah. So what we did in March was to take the $40 million of identified underspending and program that into my budget for the 2024 [fiscal year] So that original one, we just got to work right away saying how can we put this money to use as we were already like in the process of building the budget for [the 2024 fiscal year] which starts July 1st.
Miller: So what you’re talking about now is how to spend this money in the next couple weeks essentially?
Vega Pederson: How we can get the money allocated, how we can get it, as much of it as possible, out the door as soon as possible. Some of it will obviously roll over into the next fiscal year too. But it wasn’t just about programming the money, although that’s a really important piece. And like I said, I want to have this done in collaboration. I think it was also looking at what are the obstacles and the barriers that we have right now for getting that money out the door. And that’s about the providers, right? That’s the challenges that the providers are having, which I hear loud and clear. And I recognize that there are things that we need to be doing better in the Joint Office to do that.
Miller: And there’s been a lot of reporting by OPB and other sources about that recently. And the two things that I’ve seen most often from service providers are that contracts don’t allow high enough pay to actually hire people to do these jobs. In fact, they say that the county pays more for similar jobs than [service providers are] able to pay, and that the contracts require work to be done before the nonprofits can actually get their money. They have to be reimbursed sometimes, you know, a lot of money that they don’t have up front after they’ve done the work. Do you agree with these two items that have been brought up by providers?
Vega Pederson: Oh, absolutely. And there has been a commitment by myself and our board to really address both the wage issue and the contracting issue. And I will say for the wage issue, this year across all of our departments, we’ve invested an 8% COLA [cost of living adjustment] just in this fiscal year budget. And that is for funding that we’re doing through our general fund dollars. That’s also for providers who are paid through our Support of Housing Service Measure dollars. That builds on a 7% cost of living adjustment that we had in last fiscal year, fiscal year 2023. So we’re really looking to make these investments.
And as we’re looking at what we can do with some of this additional underspending that we have, looking at how we can set up opportunities like a grant opportunity, for instance, for providers, that will allow them to use that for wages, for benefits, for technical assistance. And this is something that we’re looking to partner with our philanthropic community to help get these money out the doors because I think they can be a really good part of the solution as well.
Miller: In the letter that you put out recently, one of the solutions that you mentioned is this: “Engage a consultant with national expertise in system performance, effective distribution of funds and process improvement for social and health care programs, to advise about organizational and structural changes to improve service delivery.” This is bureaucratic language. But what I hear is we’re going to spend maybe significant amounts of taxpayer money to figure out effective ways to spend taxpayer money. Do you really need to do that?
Vega Pederson: Yes, we do need to do that. Because if we were being successful with getting money out the door, we wouldn’t have a problem. And I think-
Miller: But the providers say it’s pretty clear what we need to do. Just give us more money and give us more money upfront and we will do the important work. I mean, those are things that you’ve said that you agree with. I’m just wondering, what else do you need an expert to come in to tell you to do?
Vega Pederson: Yeah, I think that there are some long standing issues with the Joint Office of Homeless Services, how it was set up, how it was started off as a very small offshoot that was run under the Chair’s department. It’s only in the last couple of years been made its own department. That’s really a part of the larger structure of the county. There are things that are missing. I think in its structure, I think there are improvements that can be made throughout it.
And what we wanna do is, we want to bring in people who are the smartest in the country in doing these things. We’ve actually already engaged James Schroeder and Healthcare Management Associates to come in and to create the 90-day plan that really is looking at an evaluation of our current operations, the processes and the outcomes that are gonna be used. And they’ve actually started working already in engaging with partners to have this conversation.
So it’s the things that we can improve with the Joint Office internally and things that we need to do as well as how we can be working better and more effectively with our partners.
Miller: So let’s turn to the Joint Office of Homeless Services. It’s this partnership between the City of Portland and the county. Even though the county and city leaders both recently voted to continue the partnership for another year, two city council members had pretty negative things to say about it publicly.
Renee Gonzalez told the Oregonian, “I asked myself with all the money going to the county, are taxpayers getting the outcomes they’re paying for? My take,” he said, “[is that] taxpayers are getting a bad deal on the Joint Office.”
And Mingus Mapps wrote this in a statement: “It’s incredibly difficult to support an extension for the Joint Office of Homeless Services. The Office has had drastic underspending, a lack of investment in drug addiction services and residential treatment and record numbers of people suffering on our streets. We urgently need detox, sobering and treatment and I am not confident they can deliver with urgency.”
What’s your response to these city commissioners?
Vega Pederson: You know, I think that they are saying things that I would agree with in terms of our ability to get the money out the door. That was the conversation that you and I were just having about the need to do a better job of doing this. The need to focus. I think a lot of what I hear and not just from Councilors Mapps and Gonzalez, but also with everybody I talked to at the city is this feeling that, for a long time, they haven’t been engaged in the work of the Joint Office, haven’t had a say in how some of the tens of millions of dollars that they’re investing are going to and the priorities that they have haven’t been addressed. And so that’s something that I am committed and working to change, and I have been ever since election day.
Miller: How much control are you willing to give up? My understanding is that we call this a ‘joint’ office, but the county has way more power, puts more money into these services and has a lot more say into how the money is spent. You’re talking about collaboration. And that’s one of the key words you describe. And in subtle or not so subtle ways, you’ve been basically saying that you’re gonna do a better job at including other voices, other elected leaders from the city or elsewhere in decision making. But in the end, somebody is gonna have to vote for these things. And I also get the sense that you don’t want to have the city have veto power over Joint Office, but total budgeting.
So what do you mean when you say that this is gonna be a collaboration?
Vega Pederson: I’ve been making policies and designing programs for, you know, 10 years now in these kinds of roles. You have to have everyone at the table as you’re talking about how to make these decisions. I think we can do a much better job of being transparent about how we are engaging with the city and also with my board in the ideas and the types of investments that we want to see to make sure that we’re reaching the goals that we have for our support of [the] housing services measure plans as well as the needs that we see in the city and the county. And so that’s what I mean by that.
I do think that we can have more public forums where we’re talking about those types of investments. Ultimately, the Multnomah County Board is responsible for passing and voting on our budget. We also have the responsibility of getting those supportive housing services measures out the door as well. So that is something that rests with us. That’s our responsibility. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be collaborative, that we can’t be consultative and that we can’t take into consideration the priorities that the city has as well.
Miller: What would be lost if this now six- or seven-year-old partnership were dissolved?
Vega Pederson: I think it would be a huge loss in terms of our ability to respond cohesively to all of the issues that we have when we talk about the humanitarian crisis on our streets. And I will say that I do think that in order to be able to invest in and solve those problems,
we do have to have the collaboration between the city and the county. There are roles that they have in terms of establishing where people can camp and where they can’t. They have the public safety response function. They are able to be responsible and see things in a different way than we do. But we need everybody at the table as we’re talking about the investments we make, the solutions that we need to see and be making everyone successful.
You know, even before the Joint Office of Homeless Services was created, the city and the county both independently were putting
millions of dollars into our homelessness system. The city was doing the adult single population and the county was doing families and couples. And I don’t think we want to go back to that divided system. I think it should be able to work better with us at the table together making these investments.
Miller: You mentioned one of the city’s roles here in crafting rules regarding when and where people can sleep outside. Do you support the new daytime camping ban that the city just passed?
Vega Pederson: One of the things about this ban is that I know it is gonna require very frequent collaboration and open collaboration between the city agencies, between Multnomah County departments, between our service providers, between homeless advocates in terms of the impact of what this will do. We already have had conversations and I’ve directed my staff to start working on what this means in terms of places where we know people will show up if they aren’t able to be in their tents or with their belongings during the day. So we’re having that conversation around libraries. What does our day shelter access look like? All of these things.
Miller: Well, what have you heard from all of those people? And this isn’t just the county side. There’s also the nonprofit side. I’m asking because when we talked about this last week with two social service providers, they were expecting a disaster. They were expecting more people to show up during the day when they don’t have the people or places for them. What have you heard from county-level people?
Vega Pederson: Yeah, it’s a huge concern. We’re looking at, like I said before, the libraries and the impact of libraries. Are they gonna have an influx of people coming in that are just looking for a place to go but who aren’t necessarily there for library purposes? Are we gonna see this at the Behavioral Health Resource Center that we’ve recently been able to actually get at a level of service and response, that works for the system and works for the people that are there really well. So this is a huge concern as we’re talking to folks at the county.
Miller: I mean, it seems like you are politely saying, you don’t think this is a good policy?
Vega Pederson: You know, I think Commissioner Rubio was actually very prudent in how she described it when she was opposing this. Until we have more shelter sites, until we have expanded capacity for these kinds of day services, getting all of these resources in place before a ban takes into place, seems to be the right thing to do. I think there’s a lot of concern that, just like we saw with Measure 110, this enforcement is gonna happen, but we’re not gonna have the services that come behind it to really help out.
Miller: In recent years people in Multnomah County have been getting more rental assistance, more people have been moved into supportive housing and into emergency shelters. But unsheltered homelessness remains an enormous problem. I’m curious what your metric for success or failure is? I mean how will you know, personally, that what you’re doing, as arguably the most powerful elected person who has direct control over these issues, more powerful in some ways than the mayor, and I would argue in a lot of ways. How do you know that you’re on the right track or on the wrong track?
Vega Pederson: That is a great question. We know that we are seeing increasing numbers of people experiencing homelessness. For me, success looks like our ability to ramp up the services that we’re providing, the shelters and the housing placements that we’re doing, that we have an effective system that is actually getting people safely off the streets into shelters. But then moving them directly or quickly, I would say, into a permanent housing and that they are able to stay in that permanent housing for a long period so that they’re successful there.
And I think we also need to see a difference in our communities. We need to see that people are living unsheltered homeless right now are in safer places that are in places where they can actually get connected to service, connected housing placements. That’s what success looks like.
Miller: How worried are you that what you’re talking about can’t happen fast enough to prevent what seems to be a growing backlash among even progressive Portlanders who are increasingly fed up?
Vega Pederson: Yeah, I think people are feeling frustrated. I think they’ve been feeling frustrated for a while. So I think that is there now and we just need to recognize it. I mean, it’s frustrating for me when I see people who are experiencing homelessness in my neighborhood. You know, for a while we had a bunch of RVs that were in front and I was struggling to get people connected to services and things. So I understand that frustration and I understand people are at a point where they may be losing patience.
That’s why for me, it’s so important that we are taking advantage of this opportunity where we have a new county chair, we have a new Governor, we do have resources available. We have a new system of collaboration together and we have a new Joint Office director in Dan Fields. We have leadership in place who is able to make changes. We are committed to making those changes and doing so transparently and with urgency.
And I think this is a moment of hope. It’s really like an inflection point where we have this opportunity to do things better and do things differently. And that’s what we’re gonna take advantage of.
Miller: I wanna turn to some of the behavioral health issues that the county also has a really significant role in addressing, starting with substance use disorder and overdoses. What are you doing, specifically, to respond to fentanyl?
Vega Pederson: Yeah. I mean the severity of the drug crisis that we’re seeing on our streets is really intense. It’s something that we haven’t seen. I was in Portland when we had the heroin epidemic. So we went through the opioid epidemic but we’re in something different right now with fentanyl and even with the types of meth that we’re seeing right now.
One of the things that we’ve done is in partnership with the city. We allocated money towards Unity to have nine additional sobering beds that are coming online in early 2024. This was a big piece because we know that when Hooper Detox closed in 2019, it was mainly set up to serve people who needed to sober from alcohol. But that’s not what we were seeing. That’s not where the need was. So when we have people who are in crisis who need a place to go, we want to make sure that there is an option for them. I think our hospital emergency departments have done a great job of stepping up and filling that gap now. But we know that it’s needed there. So that is one of those things.
We’re also moving forward with the Behavioral Health Crisis Network or Beacon, as it’s often called, and looking at how we can actually make investments for the county and the city as well as our healthcare partners, in putting the pieces in place to set up this response network. So we’re gonna be putting out a request for information for folks to say, “These are the things that we can do right now to build on those pieces.” And that’s built on the Beacon plan that we have that’s been in creation for the last couple of years.
Miller: What were the hardest decisions that you had to make in crafting the new budget, the $3.5 billion budget?
Vega Pederson: We have about 30% of the American Rescue Plan dollars to work with this year than we did in years past. And those dollars had been put to use doing things that we know are critically important for our community, whether that was rental assistance, whether that was gun violence intervention and prevention, whether that was actually like funding some of our jail dorms. We were actually using those monies in really critical ways. The toughest part of making this budget was really in figuring out how we make some of the harder decisions about what to cut, what to fund with general fund dollars. And we had to make some really tough decisions.
I will say that one of the hardest ones for me was Family Resource Navigators, which were actually placed in our schools to help families that were navigating this time. Luckily, we had some additional dollars that we were able to use. And through a budget amendment process that Commissioner Rosenbaum brought forward, we were able to get those back because I know that our families and our schools really rely on that. But that work is going to continue. I mean, this is our last year of [American Rescue Plan Act] dollars. So next year, we’re gonna have to do the same thing.
For me, it’s important that, as we’re doing this work, having these programs over the next year, to really use scrutiny in making decisions about those that are being most valuable to our community and those that are having the results we need to continue investing.
Miller: Finally, I want to follow up on something we’ve talked about a couple of times in the past [about] Preschool For All. There are gonna be 1,400 available preschool slots for Preschool For All in the coming school year. It’s a doubling from this past year. But a 2018 study found that there were more than 10 times that number of three- and four-year-olds in the county. How are you gonna ramp up that much more in just seven years?
Vega Pederson: Yeah, this is where these first years of the pilot of Preschool For All have been so important because it’s about engaging with providers to get them ready to come on board as Preschool For All, to expand their capacity. We are working closely with our community colleges and funding scholarships and having them do programs to grow the workforce because we know that’s a huge need. And we are investing in facilities. So the bricks and mortar of just building more places to have preschools and being able to expand and provide technical assistance for people so that they’re able to do that. All of these are like really core things. We knew there were challenges when we started Preschool For All, workforce, wages, facilities. And that is why we are looking at how we can continue this work to build on that capacity. We’re actually 20% down in the county in terms of child care providers [from where] we were when we started Preschool For All before the pandemic. So we know we have our work cut out for us as we do this.
I will say that one of the things that I’ve also asked our Preschool For All staff and our finance team to do is take a really good look at some of the assumptions and some of the data we were looking at when we were creating Preschool For All and update that for 2023 and beyond so as we get to the universal goal, we’ll know exactly what we need to have in place to get there. So a good plan and a lot of people who are dedicated to seeing this be successful.
Miller: Chair Vega Pederson, thanks very much.
Vega Pederson: All right. Thank you, Dave. Great to be here.
Miller: Jessica Vega Pederson is the Multnomah County chair.
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