Mayors ask Clackamas County to use funding for supportive housing
Several mayors throughout Clackamas County sent a letter to county commissioners this week encouraging them to use American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to mitigate homelessness through supportive housing services (SHS).
The joint letter was supported by Lake Oswego's Joe Buck, West Linn's Jules Walters, Oregon City's Rachel Lyles Smith, Wilsonville's Julie Fitzgerald, Milwaukie's Mark Gamba and Tualatin's Frank Bubenik.
In May 2020, voters in Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties passed Measure 26-210, a business and personal income tax designed to raise money for SHS. Earlier this May, commissioners were alerted of a delay in several millions of dollars worth of anticipated tax receipts from the measure, resulting in a significant funding shortfall. Instead of receiving $24 million on July 1 as planned, the board only received $150,000. The county was also alerted of five total housing services at risk of being defunded or discontinued due to this delay.
Commissioners used county general funds to keep those services, including a hotel shelter that provides 143 household units, afloat until they received a $3 million advance from Metro on July 20 to put towards an essential services budget, allowing them to fund SHS with the option to request an additional $2 million if needed for a total of $5 million.
In the letter from the mayors, they request that the county board use ARPA funds alongside these dollars to help further bridge the funding gap caused by the tax-receipt delay, and they stress that the delayed funds should not slow down the county's implementation of SHS funding outlined in their Measure 26-210 implementation plan.
"Funding of the Local Implementation Plan for the Supportive Housing Services measure should not be delayed or reduced in scale," mayors said in the letter. "While our individual communities have diverse populations and needs, like all of Clackamas County, we share vulnerable residents who depend on both the ongoing services the county provides as well as the enhanced services, new infrastructure and direct support that the SHS funds will provide. The proposed Essential Services Budget to continue funding ongoing programs is critical but not sufficient to meet the needs of our residents."
Buck, who helped lead the development of the letter, said one of the reasons he and other mayors requested this action from commissioners is a general concern that the $5 million may not sufficiently address the magnitude of the problem by simply funding services that were already in existence.
"The whole point of the support services measure was to not just continue doing what we're doing, but to really build infrastructure around providing new services, and that is so desperately needed here in Clackamas County where we do not have the infrastructure that the other counties have around providing new services to our residents," Buck said.
Clackamas County will receive a total of $81.1 million in relief funding through ARPA, a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill passed in March to promote post pandemic economic recovery. In May, the county received its first installment of $40,631,961, and recently on July 13, allocated $12.5 million of that toward supporting businesses, nonprofits and broadband infrastructure.
While there are specific regulations set around what ARPA dollars can be used for, mayors highlight in their letter that "the use of ARPA funds to continue hotel programs directed in response to COVID is a strategy being employed by cities and counties across the country."
Buck speculated that the earlier tax delay may be making commissioners hesitant to commit further ARPA funding.
"I think they're being overly cautious about whether or not they're going to receive money from this tax measure. There's just nothing in the data and...nothing in the work that the Metro auditor has done to suggest that these tax revenues are not coming in, and that there's no reason to invest a modest amount of money in getting the local implementation plan off the ground, so that we can start helping people now," Buck said.
Lyles Smith added that the upcoming wildfire season may also be giving commissioners hesitancy. They recently drafted a letter to the Department of Treasury asking them to consider expanding eligible uses for ARPA dollars to include disaster preparedness. If approved, the county will be able to use the dollars to fund projects related to wildfires and other natural disasters that have significantly impacted local communities over the past year.
"I think there's a little hesitancy right now while we're in the middle of wildfire season to, overcommit is probably the wrong word, but, you know, they're wanting to be conservative in case there is an emergency that requires dollars. So...if we could get through wildfire season, I think it would make the county commissioners feel more comfortable," Lyles Smith said.
She added that she sympathizes with commissioners, who are faced with the task of deciding the best places to allocate funds within regulations, because Oregon City had been in the same position.
"I completely understand where they're at (in terms) of trying to wade through all of the federal regulations and trying to make sure that what they can spend the ARPA dollars on is correct, and that they're abiding by all the rules," Lyles Smith said. "We've been in that same exact boat of figuring out where to spend our dollars, and so, you know, it's a respectable and understandable dialogue."
Commissioners have been in contact with mayors since the letter was sent, and according to Buck and Lyles Smith, dialogue has been positive and commissioners have overall been in support of the prospect of committing further funds to SHS.
"I think they heard us, they heard what we were saying in our letter, and they completely understand," Lyles Smith said, adding that commissioners have also asked for a little bit of patience while they work through all of the details.
Buck said that while he fully appreciates the fact that the delay caught commissioners off guard and they don't have access to as many funds now as they anticipated, that does not change the urgency of the need to mitigate the county's homeless crisis.
"While the funding is available later, the needs are right now, and they're current and in some ways, the needs have never been greater," Buck said. "We're looking at these record temperatures, statewide drought, all of the county in severe drought, the fact that we're here still amidst a pandemic, the eviction moratorium is about to expire. And in general, (there has been) a general lack of investment in housing and homeless services for many years."
"The time to implement is now," he added. "It's just a matter of the county finding a way like Multnomah and Washington counties have both done to fill the funding gap between now and when they're going to receive tax revenues from the supportive housing services tax."
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