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Following city audit, business leaders, environmentalists square off over innovative program.

COURTESY PHOTO: PP&R - City Commissioner Carmen Rubio addressed Portland neighbors at Mill Park on April 22. She is a supporter of the Clean Energy Fund.Commissioner Carmen Rubio is working to head off major changes to the Portland Clean Energy Fund following a week of rapid developments concerning the city climate-and-equity program.

The developments included confirmation that the voter-approved program is raising twice as much tax money as originally estimated, the release of a critical city audit of the program, the resignation of the director of the bureau that manages it and a call from the Portland Business Alliance that its spending be frozen while an emergency 90-day independent commission review it.

In public statements and responses to the Portland Tribune, Rubio rejected any immediate changes in the voter approved at this time. Instead, she promised to develop and submit recommendations to the City Council to solve the problems identified in the audit and allow the program to more clearly meet its goals by the end of the year.

"As I shared with representatives of the Portland Business Alliance last week, my goal is to preserve public trust in this new, innovative program and conversations about structural changes in line with voter intent are already in process," Rubio told the Portland Tribune. "As changes are clarified, I encourage the PBA to work with me. Let's make PCEF successful in its work — to build community and economic resilience to climate change and mitigate its effects — rather than calling for drastic measures that would undermine this new program being afforded the opportunity to deliver on its goals."

According to Rubio, metrics for measuring the program's success will be developed by July and all other changes will be presented to the council by December. First they will go through the appointed citizen committee that awards the programs grants, followed by a public review and comment process in late summer and early fall.

Rubio's response will undoubtedly please the coalition of environmental and social justice organizations that wrote and place the measure on the November 2020 ballot.

The Portland Business Alliance said it also was receptive.

"We are encouraged by Commissioner Rubio's willingness to work with us and drive desperately needed improvements in response to the auditors recommendations and findings on the Portland Clean Energy Fund," PBA President and CEO Patrick Hoan told the Tribune.

Ballot Measure 26-201 was approved by 65% of Portland voters. It imposed a 1% tax on sales by major retailers to fund climate-related projects that would benefit communities of colors. It is managed by the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

The council unanimously approved the first group of 45 grants worth $8.6 million recommended by the oversight committee in April 2021. It has a balance of $170 million and expects to spend $100 million this year.

During the campaign, supporters said it would raise around $30 million per year. The Portland Business Alliance released a report by the ECONorthwest consulting firm that said it would raise far more.

The ECONorthwest report was right. On March 7, the coalition that wrote and supported the measure sent a letter to Rubio that admitted the tax was raising three times as much as it originally estimated.

The letter asked Rubio to expand the program to spend the additional revenue. She promised to do so in a response letter two days later.

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND BUSINESS ALLIANCE - Portland Business Alliance President and CEO Andrew Hoan (left) with John Tapogna of ECONorthwest. Hoan and the PBA have called for changes to the Portland Clean Energy Fund, following a city audit.

Auditor weighs in

But then the Portland City Auditor's Office released an audit on March 10 that said the program had still not established required performance or accountability standards, and that it lacks clear oversight for spending. The audit included a response letter signed by Rubio, PBPS Director Andrea Durbin, director of the Planning and Sustainability Bureau, and bureau employees who manage the program. It promised to make the necessary changes.

Rubio subsequently released a separate statement that read: "I want PCEF to be successful because it will reduce our carbon emission and help mitigate the negative effects of climate change, that, as we know, will impact Black, Brown and low-income Portlanders most. And because PCEF is a first of-its-kind program in the nation, we must preserve public trust in this new, innovative program — and that includes addressing not only the auditor's recommendations, but other lessons learned. I look forward to working with the community coalition, committee and staff to ensure its success going forward."

COURTESY PHOTO: U.S. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY - Portland Clean Energy Fund planned to give out up to 15,000 cooling units, such as this outdoor-mounted heat pump is shown here, in response to recent and unprecedented heat waves in Portland.

Leader steps down

Then, on March 15, Rubio and Durbin announced that Durbin was resigning. Her last day will be Wednesday, April 6. The joint letter did not mention the audit but said discussions about Durbin's departure had begun two months earlier.

She will be replaced on an interim basis by Deputy Director Donnie Oliveira.

Rubio told the Portland Tribune that Durbin's departure does not change the schedule for developing and presenting program changes to the council.

Durbin will receive a severance package of $197,300, which is the equivalent of one year's pay. The Oregonian subsequently reported that is $98,000 more than she would have received if she had resigned 12 days later.

The previous day, the PBA sent the City Council a letter demanding program spending be frozen until an emergency, independent 90-day commission can review it. The March 14 letter also suggested that the council consider spending some of the $170 million the program has accumulated on other issues, including homelessness.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who supported the 2018 ballot measure, immediate accused the PBA of trying to kill the program that it had opposed at the ballot.

"They are trying to prevent our wealthiest corporations from contributing just a small portion of their profits to invest in the self determination of BIPOC communities and to create new green jobs," Hardesty said in an online statement.

Rubio also rejected both proposals, but she talked with representatives of the organizations and promised to work with them and the coalition supporting the fund going forward. The coalition includes: The Coalition of Communities of Color; Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon; Verde; Native American Youth and Family Center; OPAL Environmental Justice; Sierra Club Oregon; Portland Audubon; Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility; 350PDX; and Columbia Riverkeeper.

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