The Portland City Council voted Thursday night against Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty’s proposal to allocate about $3.6 million in ongoing funds to Portland Street Response, which would have brought its total budget to $4.6 million, in order to expand the pilot program citywide by next spring.
“A citywide expansion of Portland Street Response hangs in the balance,” Hardesty said. “We need this funding now.”
A debate over how rapidly to expand Portland Street Response has consumed the City Council’s budget negotiations this spring. The pilot program, located in Lents, is intended to reduce interactions between police officers and people who are unhoused or experiencing mental health crises, instead sending a two-member crisis team to respond to 911 calls where a weapon isn’t believed to be present.
The disagreement took on new gravity last month, when Portland Police Officer Zachary DeLong shot and killed Robert Delgado, an unhoused man police say had a replica gun, in Lents Park.
Hardesty’s motion sought to amend the mayor’s April 29 proposal to allocate $977,528 intended to last for the duration of Portland Street Response’s 12-month pilot with more money “retained in contingency” pending data and program evaluations. The $3.6 million would have allowed PSR to hire eight mental health crisis clinicians, seven firefighter specialists, one EMS specialist and two program coordinators, and to roll out six vans citywide by March 2022.
Hardesty added that when her colleagues learned of the estimated $14.5 million it would cost to fully fund Portland Street Response citywide, they became hesitant and started considering outsourcing the program to nonprofits or other contractors instead of having the city run it.
“Every commissioner said to me at one point or another that they support this program,” she said Thursday. “I’m asking you today: Show your support for this program by voting to let us do the pilot in a way that we agreed to, that we funded and that we voted on last budget cycle.”
Hardesty and Commissioner Carmen Rubio voted in favor of the amendment. Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioners Dan Ryan and Mingus Mapps voted no.
Wheeler’s budget proposal drew calls from power brokers like U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) to “fully fund” the program. During Thursday’s meeting, however, Mapps and Wheeler pushed back on the argument that they weren’t fully funding Portland Street Response.
“We agreed to the pilot. I fully funded what we agreed to in this pilot,” Wheeler said. “And yet it’s now being pitched as some sort of a slow-walking or a capitulation or going backwards.
“I’m not trying to be cheap. I’m trying to get it right,” he added. “I have one priority. It’s only one. That’s outcomes.”
Mapps also described the argument that the city wasn’t fully funding the program as a “misconception.”
“We have funded this program,” Mapps said. “Because we have set aside the dollars to expand this program, we can expand it any given Wednesday. This is not about stalling. This is about trying to get this program right, which is why today I vote no.”
During the meeting, Hardesty read a letter written by Portland Street Response staffers who said it seemed as though the City Council didn’t trust them to strategically and successfully expand the program. They also alleged the council didn’t value the importance of social work and other human services jobs carried out in “our female-dominated field.”
“We want you to know that when you say ‘methodical,’ what we actually hear is that you want the status quo,” the PSR employees wrote. “We can’t help but think that there is more at play here than just being more ‘methodical.’ What we hear you really saying is you want to stall the rollout and have more flexibility later on in potentially outsourcing our jobs to a nonprofit that would pay us significantly less.”
Mapps pushed back on that argument, saying a data-driven approach was “the engine behind the expansion.”
“This sort of dysfunctional dynamic that I see today is one of the reasons why we need to be really mindful as we go about expanding this program from one neighborhood to 95 neighborhoods,” Mapps said. “None of the leaders who are in charge of trying to make this work tell me, ‘Boss, we’re ready to go citywide.’”
Despite the disagreements about funding PSR, the council reached a consensus on how to evaluate the program.
It unanimously adopted a motion brought forward by Hardesty and Wheeler, which requires Portland Street Response to present a program evaluation at the six- and 12-month marks of the pilot. The work sessions must include data around “key metrics,” such as the number and types of calls responded to and the program’s impact on the workload of police and fire employees.
Commissioner Mapps proposed his own amendments to the program evaluations, including directing Portland Street Response to work in concert with the city’s Bureau of Emergency Communications, which fields 911 calls, and the Portland Police Bureau to assess whether its call criteria can be expanded so that PSR can respond to calls for housed individuals and calls where a weapon might be present.
That last assessment is particularly important because PSR is not currently allowed to respond to any 911 calls involving a weapon. As WW reported this week, the shooting of Robert Delgado is part of a pattern of police killing people believed to have weapons who may have actually had fake guns or no weapons at all.
“It is our understanding that the city might consider sending PSR to some weapons calls. We don’t believe that any decisions have been made about that yet,” Mapps said in an email to WW. “We think it’s really important to expand the call types in a way that is more realistic to how council and the community has envisioned PSR service will be provided. We’d like to see these changes implemented as much as is possible prior to the six- and 12-month evaluations.”
Mapps’ amendment also called for a cost-benefit analysis of the program and instructed the Police Bureau to “seek all opportunities to shift calls for service involving mental health to Portland Street Response while continuing to acknowledge and document the risks and benefits of the new policies.”
The council adopted Mapps’ amendment with inverse votes to Hardesty’s proposal: Mapps, Ryan and Wheeler voted yes, and Hardesty and Rubio voted no.
The City Council is scheduled to hold a final budget vote June 17.