Portland’s ‘Clean Energy Fund’ has saved PBOT and the city’s budget

Thanks PCEF!!! (City of Portland)

The Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF) was created to save low-income and Portlanders of color from the ravages of climate change, but with approval of the $8.2 billion City of Portland budget this week, the fund has also managed to save all Portlanders from fiscal doom. And it might have saved part of Mayor Ted Wheeler’s legacy, allowing him to avoid severe cuts in his final budget as leader of our city.

Those cuts might have hit the Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) hardest. Back in September, PBOT Commissioner-in-charge Mingus Mapps and agency staff painted a very bleak picture of cuts needed to fill a $32 million budget gap that included laying off dozens of employees and even letting landslides go unswept. The budget approved by council on Wednesday includes over $49 million for PBOT thanks to PCEF. That’s in addition to previous allocations that bring the total funding from PCEF into PBOT coffers to $142 million.

Wheeler’s final budget was approved with over $600 million in PCEF revenue going directly toward city projects (see below). In a City Council work session on PCEF Tuesday, program staffers revealed PCEF accounts for 155 City of Portland FTEs.

When it comes to transportation, an $80 million slice of PCEF revenue has already been set-aside for an electric bike rebate program and support for PBOT’s Transportation Wallet. In this budget, PBOT was able to save 31 positions with support of $8 million from PCEF. They also used PCEF funds to pay for $2 million in streetlight expenses which were previously funded through the General Fund. That freed up PBOT GF dollars to pay for other things like public plaza costs, green space management, graffiti cleanup, and small safety projects.

Simply put, PCEF allowed PBOT to pay important bills and avoid burning a lot of political capital. There were still reductions made to PBOT’s budget — about $6.7 million and 4 FTE — but those are spread across several different service areas and considered relatively manageable.

“The City of Portland could not have balanced its budget without your direct guidance and your leadership,” an effusive Wheeler beamed into a meeting of the PCEF Advisory Committee last night. “What could have just been a bloodbath of a budget for us turned out to make some really good new key investments.”

“I really wish I could do more — throw you a party, bake you a cake or something else,” Wheeler continued. “I really do appreciate you personally. Thank you all.”

Even with an eventful week full of smiles, mayoral praise, and photo-ops, PCEF leaders and committee members’ work isn’t over. There’s still unease about PCEF being used as a slush fund for city bureaus and its largest critic, Commissioner Rene Gonzalez, isn’t likely drop his attempts to mold the program into a shape he prefers. Tensions around Gonzalez’s efforts to undermine PCEF by referring it back to voters (a move Wheeler referred to last night when he told the committee, “I think it would be a tragedy to have this go back for a referral because people are just angry and edgy”) have cooled over the past week, thanks in large part to Tuesday’s work session where none of his probing questions could crack PCEF’s armor.

But that doesn’t mean PCEF committee members won’t have other battles to fight.

Along with keeping city bureau budget makers at bay, a new wrinkle in the idea to borrow off of interest earned by the PCEF fund to pay for non-climate city expenditures that was floated a few months ago by Commissioner Carmen Rubio, is back on the table. The approved budget was balanced by using $7 million in earned interest from PCEF — a maneuver that requires an amendment to city code that will need to be discussed before the budget is final in June.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Founder of BikePortland (in 2005). Father of three. North Portlander. Basketball lover. Car owner and driver. If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at maus.jonathan@gmail.com, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.

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Angus Peters
Angus Peters
26 days ago

Unfortunately it does seem the PCEF has turned into one big slush fund. The voters did not intend for this and frankly I think many voter’s opinion of the PCEF have drastically changed since it was passed. Instead of letting it be used “willy nilly” to plug budget holes (and allow continued wasteful spending) it needs to be retuned to the voters for modification or outright repeal.

Middle of the Road Guy
Middle of the Road Guy
26 days ago
Reply to  Angus Peters

Don’t forget the marijuana tax going to education.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
25 days ago

Or the Utility License Fee going to Police instead of PBOT.

Todd/Boulanger
Todd/Boulanger
26 days ago

I am still waiting for more analysis…as to which would have been worse for the “climate” and impacted Portland’s vulnerable populations (poor and youth/ elderly) least… the planned cuts to city programmes or this budgetary plan using PCEF funds.

GF
GF
26 days ago

And I wonder how much of this will get funneled in PERS.
Would like to see all current PER capped at 100k yearly benefit or less…wonder how much that would save…

Todd/Boulanger
Todd/Boulanger
26 days ago
Reply to  GF

GF, if you really want to focus on “that issue” there is probably more “meat” in the typical departmental over reliance on OT vs. new FTE for police & fire, etc.

Speaking nationally: Though post pandemic HR there may be an even bigger opportunity to “reinvent” EMS & Fire & Police departments as “Lifesavers” since most EMS and Fire calls (~80%) are health related / traffic injuries and then spin off from police mental health calls and low level quality of life calls to non-uniformed staff.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
25 days ago
Reply to  Todd/Boulanger

I was at a Portland city council budget meeting in 2010 I think, in which we community members were begging that EPAP be funded for another year. A slightly earlier group from the Police Bureau mentioned that each EMT call, often with police and fire crew involved, was costing the city $24,000 per call, mostly for heart attacks, seizures, and other illnesses related to sedentary lifestyles, and they were asking the city to build more sidewalks and bikeways in EP to help allow people to safely exercise and gradually reduce the number of EMT calls.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
25 days ago

What Oregon ought to do is let all fees, taxes, and other fundraising revenue go into one big fat slush fund for each jurisdiction and let them get on with it, be it pet projects or aquatic permaculture sidewalks all over SW Portland.

John V
John V
23 days ago

I have no problem with PCEF. Although I don’t like taxes raised for specific purposes (I’d rather they just have a budget and spend it how it needs to be spent), PCEF seemed ok as far as that goes. What makes me so furious is the way somehow they are allowed to do this. How is this legal? How is it possible that we can pass a tax, for a specific purpose, and they’re allowed to spend it on something else? I guess in this case because PCEF is managed by a group who decides how to spend it (because what qualifies really is an open ended question that requires judgment), and this is what they decided?

Either way, this is decidedly not what PCEF was for. Not at all. This kind of spending allows city government to pay for things they already were (or should have been) paying for with general or other funds using the new PCEF fund. It was intended to be NEW funding for a particular cause, not this.

I’m glad they covered the budget holes, but this should be a stain on Wheeler’s already tattered legacy, not some kind of win. This should be seen as an absolute failure.

Watts
Watts
23 days ago
Reply to  John V

I fully agree. Using money voters raised for climate mitigation to pay for routine auto-related expenses is simply disgusting.

Commissioner Rubio, you ran as an environmentalist, and you are supposed to be safeguarding this fund. What happened?

Allan
Allan
23 days ago

From what I can tell, PCEF is struggling to find enough projects to fund. We can’t do everything with a non-profit, actually government is pretty good at delivering some great and equitable programs.

PBOT is not the enemy, and I’m glad to see them get recognized for some of the good work they are doing and get funding to keep doing it.

If people really want to see PCEF $$$ going to other projects- apply for grants! It is hard to come up with a model that is actually do-able and fund-able by a program like PCEF.

Watts
Watts
23 days ago
Reply to  Allan

PBOT is not the enemy

Perhaps not, but they are eating our Clean Energy fund.

PBOT: Stay away, unless you’re undertaking some new initiative that would only occur because it was funded by fund funds. Street lights are not that.

Lisa Caballero (Assistant Editor)
Editor
Reply to  Watts

What do you want PCEF to do with 100s of millions of dollars above predicted revenue that the 1% tax on sales from companies bringing in over $1B a year nationally is raking in? PBOT is not a monolith. This money ain’t going to fix potholes or widen stroads. Do you have a better way of spending it? Buy treasuries? LOL.

John V
John V
22 days ago

I don’t care what they do, but I don’t believe for one second that they can’t think of things to spend it on. It would have been a better use of the money to just install solar panels somewhere and give some low income people free electricity or something. Or harden some cycling infrastructure. Or install heat pumps. I don’t believe Allan’s or your suggestion that it’s hard to spend money on clean energy or adjacent social justice related things easily.

This perversion of the fund literally is propping up auto dependence with a clean energy fund. No, they’re not using it to build stroads, they’re using it to fill budget gaps created by having built stroads in the first place. It’s despicable.

Lisa Caballero (Assistant Editor)
Editor
Reply to  John V

PCEF is giving out grants, that groups apply for. Small organizations, businesses/non-profits–they only need relatively small amounts of money, they don’t have the financial controls and organizational structure to responsibly scale up to tens of millions of dollars. The capital projects of CoP bureaus are large enough that they can responsibly use big chunks of money, but their projects have to align with PCEF goals. PCEF still has oversight.

(And by the way, there are grants to install solar panels, heat pumps and to train PCEF target populations to participate in that work. Why don’t you spend a little time looking into the program, there is an over-abundance of info about what they do.)

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
22 days ago

Why doesn’t the city hire a nonprofit like United Way to create a program for smaller nonprofits to tap into the PCEF fund, for $50,000 to $5 million grants?

Watts
Watts
22 days ago

What do you want PCEF to do with 100s of millions of dollars above predicted revenue that the 1% tax on sales from companies bringing in over $1B a year nationally is raking in? 

It’s not like there’s a shortage of things we have to do to get our climate house in order. But if they just can’t think of anything, or don’t have the wherewithal to manage such a large fund, return the money to sender, or ask the voters for guidance.

We created a dedicated fund for a particular purpose. Cynics claimed it would bring in far more than proponents promised, and that it would become a slush fund. They were right on both counts.

Will the last bike commuter turn off their lights
Will the last bike commuter turn off their lights
22 days ago
Reply to  Allan

PBOT is not the enemy

ODOT is not the enemy.

Reckless drivers are not the enemy.

Ford and GM are not the enemy.

If people really want to see PCEF $$$ going to other projects- apply for grants!

The city could apply for funding to install solar panels and heatpumps on a grand scale. Instead it lets tiny, tiny nonprofits struggle to do essential work to mitigate ecocide. Portland is a green-washing climate-crisis-denying city.

jakeco969
jakeco969
22 days ago

“Portland is a green-washing climate-crisis-denying city”

I agree with you on this. Its hard to see so many well meaning people say so many well meaning things and yet the actual actions and results are simply the opposite of what they are espousing. I can’t tell if its deliberate and its all green washing for cold hearted profit or if they simply don’t understand the nature of the calamity that is coming and think that they are doing good.
It can be a bit strange trying to understand the political and social climate in the middle east and north africa, but it helps to remember they live in a furnace. Compare Portland’s hottest month on record AUG23 “We recorded 10 days at or above 90 degrees, too. Normally, we get around five days at more than 90 degrees in August.” “75.4 degrees was the average mean temperature across each day in August 2023.”
https://www.koin.com/weather/august-2023-makes-history-as-portlands-hottest-month-on-record/
Compare that to Iraq where  August mean daily temperatures are about 95 °F (35 °C), and summer temperatures of 123 °F (51 °C)”
https://www.britannica.com/place/Iraq/Climate

Portland could barely handle a few days of what’s coming with the rise in temperature and most of the population have little idea of what the temperature change does to peoples mental and physical state.
Portland does not seem to have a plan for the rise in temperature, reduction of rainfall or the influx of climate refugees that will be on their way as they seek succor from their harsh living conditions.
It’s way past time to quit denying climate change and to stop playing around as if its all just a game.

Will the last bike commuter turn off their lights
Will the last bike commuter turn off their lights
22 days ago
Reply to  jakeco969

We live in a hyper-individualistic society where any routine comfort is viewed as an inalienable ‘murrican right and where the mildest and temporary inconvenience is viewed as horrific. It will likely take a staggering amount of suffering and death for adult ‘murricans to stop consuming and behaving like viciously narcissistic and amoral toddlers.

Damien
Damien
22 days ago

Portland could barely handle a few days of what’s coming with the rise in temperature and most of the population have little idea of what the temperature change does to peoples mental and physical state.

Portland does not seem to have a plan for the rise in temperature, reduction of rainfall or the influx of climate refugees that will be on their way as they seek succor from their harsh living conditions.

It’s way past time to quit denying climate change and to stop playing around as if its all just a game.

We live in a hyper-individualistic society where any routine comfort is viewed as an inalienable ‘murrican right and where the mildest and temporary inconvenience is viewed as horrific. It will likely take a staggering amount of suffering and death for adult ‘murricans to stop consuming and behaving like viciously narcissistic and amoral toddlers.

Oof, truer words.

But the status quo is just the way things are, man. Have you tried optimism? /s