By Daniel Perez-Crouse
City Council has unanimously approved the second round of the Portland Clean Energy Benefits Fund (PCEF) recommendations on grantees, totaling around $120 million.
As a reminder, the initiative was passed by voters back in November 2018. Its self-described goal is to provide a “consistent, long-term funding source and oversight structure to ensure that our community’s climate action efforts are implemented to support social, economic and environmental benefits for all Portlanders, particularly communities of color and people with low incomes.” It is also tasked with reducing carbon emissions while ensuring the benefits of those reductions happen for frontline communities who have been historically excluded.
Mayor Ted Wheeler has said that there is an “inherent risk” with this venture and that there will be mistakes. “There will be dollars that will go to organizations or programs that will not pan out the way that we hope. It’s our job to mitigate that risk as much as possible.”
Commissioner Dan Ryan has been vocally supportive of this program and said, “Portland needs to be known for taking some risk. We’ve been resting on our laurels for too long.”
The fund generates $80-90 million annually for clean energy investments and is derived from one percent gross receipts surcharge on Portland sales by corporations with $1 billion or more sales nationally and $500,000 or more locally in Portland.
As stated in PCEF’s report detailing this round’s grants, 141 non-profit organizations submitted 162 applications in response to the request for proposal. The amount of funding requested ranged from $20,000 to $10 million with an average of just under $100,000 for planning grants and just over $2 million for implementation grants.
On the larger end of funding, the Hacienda Community Development Corporation is requesting $9,400,000 (over a four-year period) to provide cleaner air, increased comfort, better health, reduced financial burden and improved social outcomes for 1,000 Portland residents through upgrades to six multifamily communities with a total of 243 units. On the lower end, there are organizations like PROUDGROUND requesting $147,568 to bring clean energy and lower electric bills directly to income-qualified homeowners living in permanently affordable homes.
During the July 13 City Council meeting, Mayor Wheeler said there were some “notable issues” with round one of the initiative. “It was the first round, there were refinements to be made and I feel there have been refinements,” he said.
The report detailing this round of grantees does address multiple attempts at refining. For example, when applications request more than $100,000, they are flagged for additional review if they are new, requesting a large amount of funding relative to organization size, proposing a project in a line of work that is new to their organization and/or if there were questions about their budget.
Mayor Wheeler also expressed concern around some of the newer organizations and ones less experienced in the fields they are requesting funds for. When he asked why there weren’t more seasoned organizations in this field applying for grants, there was not a clear or definitive answer during discussions.
This same experiential sentiment with organizations receiving funding is present in the report. Only five of the 26 planning grants awarded in the first round have been completed. The remainder are expected to complete by the end of the 2022 calendar year. The report explains, “Many recipients of planning grants are small organizations who, because of their newness to grant funding coupled with the challenge of planning during a pandemic, are needing additional time to complete their projects.”
Before giving his approval on the funds, Commissioner Mingus Mapps wanted to open future dialogue around his own concerns he has over policies and procedures. One, in particular, was the council’s relationship with the fund and that he’d like more clarity on that going forward. “Even though I’ve looked at every grant, I feel like it would somehow be inappropriate and unrealistic for me to offer specific amendments to each one of those grant proposals.”
While not directly addressing this point, in discussing future improvements to the fund’s oversight and implementation, Mayor Wheeler mentioned that, “I think there’s large agreement that it would be desirable to have more public input on the individual grants. It’s very hard for a city council to do due diligence on dozens of proposals. But the community probably knows something about every one of these organizations.”
Mayor Wheeler additionally pushed for increased rigor with evaluation and oversight to ensure that potential conflicts of interest are not an issue. “We are on notice from the media that they are not going to hold the committee accountable, the vetting process accountable, but they are going to hold us as elected officials accountable. And that’s fair. But in turn, the burden is on us to make sure there’s due diligence,” he said
In response to some of these concerns, among others, Commissioner Carmen Rubio said, “We can both invest in climate resiliency and carefully develop a responsive accountable program.” She also said, “As the commissioner in charge, I have directed the PCEF staff to carry out further due diligence efforts over the next 45 days. And they will be reporting back upon their findings.” Rubio mentioned many additional oversight plans and specifically highlighted that, “we have given director Donnie Oliveira the authority to revoke any grant award before the grant agreement is executed.”
Commissioner Jo Anne Hardesty shared concerns over this and did not want unfair or excessive barriers being placed on organizations of color. She asked, “Are we going to create two systems here where we are over-scrutinizing communities of color and continuing to let white contractors do whatever white contractors are gonna do? I think we have to set a standard and hold everybody to the same standard.”
For those interested in looking over the proposal in detail, including all of the aforementioned grants, it is available for download at efiles.portlandoregon.gov/record/15244720.