The City Council Leaves Millions Set Aside for the Black Community Unspent for Almost Three Years

The unspent funds devolved into acrimonious finger-pointing last week.

Mingus Mapps Portland Commisioner Mingus Mapps emphasizes a need for more environmentally conscious city planning and architecture in Portland, OR on July, 1, 2022. (Blake Benard)

Six months after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, the Portland City Council pledged to back up its statements of racial solidarity with money. The council voted to allocate $1.9 million annually from its 3% tax on cannabis sales and $1.5 million in one-time funds to the racial justice advocacy group Reimagine Oregon.

Some of the details were hazy. The council tasked Reimagine Oregon with finding “anti-racist investments” to boost Black communities that had endured the brunt of cannabis prohibition. It left the execution to the advocacy group, which was backed by such nonprofits as the Coalition of Communities of Color and the Urban League of Portland.

More than two years later, the money set aside for Reimagine from the cannabis tax now stands at $4.8 million, with an additional $1.9 million projected for the upcoming budget. Not a dollar has been spent.

And on April 12, the city’s only Black commissioner said the millions accrued during that time should now go elsewhere.

Commissioner Mingus Mapps decried the failure to spend the money, and proposed the dollars be returned to the cannabis fund—and perhaps spent on public safety or drug and alcohol treatment. Mapps accused Reimagine Oregon of sitting on the millions of dollars meant for the Black community for three years. Reimagine’s executive director, in turn, accused Mapps of undermining the city’s racial justice efforts, noting the city had never given the group access to the money.

The sour back-and-forth last week highlighted how priorities on the City Council have shifted since the 2020 protests and the election of a council that’s more centrist than it’s been in recent memory.

But it also raises unpleasant questions about the ability of the city and its chosen contractors to deliver on good intentions. The most pressing: How does $2 million annually pile up, unused, without the City Council doing something about it for nearly three years?

Mapps says he flagged the fund when he first entered office more than two years ago. Yet it wasn’t until last week that he—or anyone on the council, for that matter—brought the matter to a vote.

“All of this is an inexcusable mess,” Mapps tells WW. “These dollars should and could be used to serve communities of color. We do not serve them well by not actually spending those dollars year after year after year.”

Commissioner Carmen Rubio says the city, not Reimagine, is culpable—and adds she doesn’t understand why Mapps, who’s long been rumored to be eyeing a mayoral run, brought forth the amendment.

“I just have to wonder why it happened,” Rubio says.

UPDATE: After print deadline on April 18, commissioners Carmen Rubio and Dan Ryan agreed that they would bring twin amendments to City Council on Wednesday. One would undo Mapps’ revoking of cannabis funds from Reimagine Oregon, and the other would give Prosper Portland, an agency controlled by Rubio, immediate access to some of the money. Read about the vote here.

Elected during the 2020 racial justice protests after the murder of George Floyd, Mapps says he, as a Black man, has repeatedly been unfairly targeted by police. Yet he’s also been a vocal supporter of the police, a stance that’s drawn the ire of social justice advocates.

And his quest last week to pull back millions in funding set aside for Reimagine reinvigorated those critics. Marcus Mundy, executive director of the Coalition of Communities of Color, called it an “assault to disembowel dollars for Black-focused efforts.”

Justice Rajee, executive director of Reimagine, said there was a “good chance someone has an intention for those funds that are a rebuke of the idea of their origins and a continued lack of commitment to what government says it will do with the community,” referring clearly to Mapps.

For all the acrimony, neither side seemed to have much clue why the money hadn’t been spent.

The Office of Community & Civic Life, which has long been buffeted with accusations of dysfunction, could not provide a timeline of how the money has been handled—and says it has no control over how it’s distributed. (Civic Life is currently disbursing more than $1 million, separate from the $4.8 million, in conjunction with Reimagine, to organizations that help women- and BIPOC-led businesses.)

Rajee told Mapps at the council hearing that Reimagine never saw the funds. “How many small businesses have I helped so far? None because [the funds] are still at the city,” Rajee said. “Clearly, no one has received the funds because the funds are still at the city.”

Mapps tells WW he did not seek information from Civic Life about how the funds remained stuck in the city’s coffers for three years. (Neither did Commissioner Dan Ryan, who oversees the office.) Yet Mapps maintains that the burden is on the program receiving taxpayer money to make it move.

“I kind of expect that if I allocated dollars to a program, I expect the planning to happen at the program level,” Mapps says.

Civic Life’s new acting director, T.J. McHugh, says the same: “If Reimagine had a solid plan, and Civic Life was not delivering, I would imagine Reimagine would be in every single office here saying, ‘I’ve got this plan and I’m not getting funding.’”

For his part, Rajee did not respond to multiple inquiries from WW this week. And the city has yet to release records requested by WW that might show who’s responsible for the money piling up unused for more than two years.

Meanwhile, in the days leading up to the City Council meeting, little communication occurred between Mapps’ and other commissioners’ offices. Although Ryan oversees the Office of Community & Civic Life, where the money was collected, he says Mapps’ team first contacted him just two days before the vote.

Ryan, who asked for a five-minute break to talk to his advisers right before voting in favor of the amendment, tells WW it was the most difficult vote he’s cast in his two years in office. “I was torn,” Ryan says, “but our responsibility is not to sit on money. That was where my impatience was with my vote.”

Asked why he didn’t bring the amendment himself, Ryan said the unspent Reimagine funds weren’t at the top of his priority list; he was focused instead, he says, on “the regulatory parts of Civic Life.”

Rubio says she did not learn of the amendment until the morning of the vote. She’s “disappointed” by her colleagues who voted for it, she adds, especially because a bureau under her watch, Prosper Portland, has worked with Reimagine since last winter on a plan to send the dollars out the door.

“I believe it was common knowledge,” Rubio says of Prosper’s planning work with Reimagine. (Mapps says he was never briefed on it.)

The City Council voted 3-2 in support of Mapps’ budget amendment, with Mayor Ted Wheeler and Rubio voting against it. But that’s not the end of the matter: First, the council will vote this week whether to approve the whole budget, including Mapps’ amendment to draw back the funds set aside for Reimagine.

City commissioners are also debating who should oversee the money next: Rubio, at Prosper Portland, or Ryan, who controls Civic Life.

“What you’re witnessing is exactly why this needs more time,” Ryan says. “We’re not going to solve it with just one amendment.”

UPDATE: As mentioned above, Rubio and Ryan agreed after print deadline on Tuesday that the money will transfer to Prosper Portland on July 1—and the two are bringing amendments to Council on Wednesday that will undo Mapps’ amendment to take back the funds reserved for Reimagine.

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