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The changes tee up negotiations for a longer-term agreement to deliver homeless services.

COURTESY PHOTO: KOIN 6 NEWS - Tents used by homeless campers line a Portland street.After a months-long negotiation process, Portland will play a bigger role in hiring and evaluating the director of Portland and Multnomah County's Joint Office of Homeless Services.

The change is one of several recently approved revisions to the agreement that guides the two governments' partnership to deliver homeless services. The joint office is housed within Multnomah County but receives funding from both governments.

The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted Thursday, April 21, to approve a resolution making the changes. The resolution, which amends the intergovernmental agreement for the joint office, also extends the term of the agreement by one year through June 2023.

The Portland City Council unanimously approved the changes days earlier on April 13.

"The city has been working hard at improving our partnership with the county to respond to the homelessness crisis," said Commissioner Dan Ryan, who led the negotiations for the city council.

It's the 13th time Portland and Multnomah County have amended their agreement for the joint office. It's also the second one-year extension of the agreement. The original agreement was set to expire after a five-year term in mid-2021.

Officials from both governments met 11 times between September 2021 and March 2022 to negotiate changes to the agreement.

Under the new agreement, the Portland city commissioner assigned to the joint office can help design the hiring process and participate in the hiring panel of the joint office's director. The previous agreement simply directed the county chair to consult with the city commissioner on their selection. The county chair still maintains sole authority to select or dismiss a director, however.

Another change establishes that the chair and city commissioner will annually evaluate the performance of the joint office's director. No such process existed in the previous agreement.

Also, the amendments include creating a four-person "executive leadership group," to coordinate development the joint office's annual budget and discuss policy matters. The group, which will meet at least quarterly, will include the county chair and city commissioner, and both elected officials will appoint a staff member to be part of the group.

Finally, the joint office will become the administrator of a federally supported data management system used by local service providers to track and share information about their services. The Portland Housing Bureau currently operates the system.

While they bring key changes to the oversight of the joint office, the revisions represent only the first step toward creating a new longer-term agreement, officials say. The longer-term agreement will aim to address questions about how the joint office is funded and the homeless service responsibilities of both the city and the county, among other potential issues.

Officials plan to restart negotiations in July after annual budget processes are finished.

"What we realized, I think, as we were moving forward with these negotiations, is that this discussion really required some additional time," said Kim Melton, chief of staff to Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury. "So much has changed."

Since the joint office was established in 2016, voters in the Portland area have approved two affordable housing bonds and Metro's 2020 supportive housing services measure. The latter added $52 million to the joint office's budget last year and is expected to bring in about $100 million annually over the next 10 years.

The joint office has expanded homeless outreach and roughly tripled the number of available shelter beds in recent years.

Also, the joint office has a new interim director. Shannon Singleton took over for Marc Jolin as director last month.

Meanwhile, the visibility of homelessness increased during the pandemic, and elected officials are facing mounting pressure from constituents to both shelter and permanently house homeless people.

More negotiations coming

"We really think that clears some of the path for some discussions to go in the coming year in a similar pattern, but hopefully, (with) more resolution," Serena Cruz, the county's chief operating officer, told county commissioners, referring to work toward a long-term agreement.

But the full scope of what Portland and Multnomah County will negotiate next is unclear.

Asked by Commissioner Susheela Jayapal to summarize what aspects of the agreement are outstanding, Cruz and Melton said details about the two governments' fiscal obligations to the joint office and how the department receives funding from other sources will be a big part of future negotiations.

They said officials need to separate questions about what programs and services the joint office delivers from the negotiations around the intergovernmental agreement.

"There are a lot of issues that don't necessarily relate to the (agreement)," Cruz said.

Discussions about programs will increasingly occur within new community advisory groups the joint office is preparing to roll out, Melton noted.

Portland commissioners named several topics they hope will be part of future negotiations before approving the recent agreements.

Ryan said city officials have been advocating for the joint office to increase reporting of its data.

Commissioner Mingus Mapps said he wants future negotiations to resolve questions about what homeless services each jurisdiction is responsible to provide and how the joint office will respond to emergent issues such as increased public camping and drug use. He also pushed for better reporting of costs to deliver services from the joint office.

Mayor Ted Wheeler said he would vote "yes" on the recent changes, "despite some very deep reservations that I have about this partnership as it stands."

He said he was still concerned Portland would not have a "full say" in the hiring of the joint office's director.

Agreeing with other commissioners' priorities, Wheeler said, "I would like to know to what degree unsheltered homeless individuals in our community are a priority for the joint office going forward."

Earlier in the meeting, Wheeler complained about addressing homelessness being framed as an "either-or" question regarding sheltering or permanent housing. "It is not an 'either-or' proposition, it must be a 'both and' proposition," he said.

An upcoming election for Multnomah County chair, in which the candidates have differing views on how to address homelessness, complicates the negotiations, Wheeler said.

For her part, Kafoury said changes under consideration to Portland's form of government may also complicate future negotiations.

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