As the pandemic continues strangling the local economy, the city of Portland is sitting on a pile of cash earmarked for the communities of color hardest hit by COVID-19.
The Portland Clean Energy Fund, which voters approved in November 2018, hopes to issue $9 million in grants later this fiscal year.
But even if it gets that money out the door, PCEF will retain reserves of $113 million—with $50 million to $60 million more expected every year.
The fund taxes large corporations on their Portland sales to provide "dedicated funding for climate action that advances racial and social justice." One of the measure's selling points was that it would create jobs in clean energy and energy efficiency.
That's not yet happening, although the need is great.
Last month, for instance, the city of Portland handed out $500 cash vouchers to 4,000 residents, the second such disbursal of cash assistance in the face of what officials called "overwhelming demand."
The city of Portland received $114 million in federal CARES Act money last year, but officials say the stimulus money did not come close to meeting the local need.
"We are seeing a need for more government support in a bunch of different ways," says Kristin Dennis, chief of staff to Mayor Ted Wheeler.
Dennis says the mayor's office has asked the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, which oversees the Portland Clean Energy Fund, whether there is any way to get money out the door faster.
That's a little complicated: The fund is supposed to be allocated through a competitive grant process that is first vetted by a five-member volunteer commission and then approved by the City Council.
A year ago, city officials told WW they expected to make its first grants by "late summer of 2020." But in the end, PCEF didn't finish its competitive bidding process until Nov. 23 and now doesn't expect to put money into Portlanders' hands until "early summer."
Donnie Oliveira, deputy director of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, says the fund was never intended to be a stimulus program.
"The Portland Clean Energy Fund was created to be an investment resource for frontline communities most impacted by climate change and to resource climate leadership from BIPOC communities," he says. "While there is certainly overlap in the impacts to marginalized communities from the pandemic and the climate crisis, PCEF is not a resource to address the pandemic directly."
As for why the fund hasn't spent any money yet, Oliveira notes the city, like every other organization, saw its work become more arduous because of COVID-19.