City Council Approves Up to $122 Million for Clean Energy Fund Grants to 65 Nonprofits

Scrutiny of grantees is “soul-crushing” in its racism, Hardesty says.

After a short, sharp debate about racism and scrutiny of public contractors, the Portland City Council unanimously approved $122 million in grants from the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund, a $298 million pot of tax dollars aimed at curbing carbon emissions and driving climate investments into low-income communities of color.

This batch of 65 grants is the second tranche from PCEF. The largest grant is $10 million to Community Energy Project Inc. to complete 40 to 50 “deep energy retrofits” annually for five years for low-income homeowners, with a minimum of 50% being people of color.

Other cash will go to the Community Cycling Center (free bikes and summer camps), Street Roots (for solar panels and battery storage on a new headquarters), and Central City Concern (to upgrade heat and air conditioning at four multifamily properties serving low-income tenants in Old Town).

PCEF is funded by a surcharge on retailers with annual sales of $1 billion or more in the U.S. and $500,000 or more within Portland. Grant awards are made by an all-volunteer, nine-member committee and must be approved by the City Council, like they were today. The fund is administered by the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, which provides staff to the grant-making committee.

Debate at council over PCEF was short and centered on due diligence of the grantees. Groups that include the Portland Business Alliance have railed against PCEF for raising far more money than expected and spending it without adequate oversight. The city auditor in March confirmed some of those concerns were justified, saying that PCEF needed to adopt better methods to track, measure and report its performance, as required by the 2018 ballot measure that created it.

Commissioner Mingus Mapps suggested that grant applicants should be required to submit their Form 990s, the annual tax document required of nonprofits, so that PCEF’s grant committee and the council could scrutinize their finances. Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty bristled at the suggestion, saying that nonprofits applying for other city funds have no such requirement.

“There seems to an organized effort to discredit the Portland Clean Energy Fund,” Hardesty said. “There seems to be an organized effort to question every person of color who is getting a contract out of the Portland Clean Energy Fund. There are a lot of contracts that come through here that no one ever raises an eyebrow about. I believe that racism is playing a huge role in why every time a penny goes out of the Portland Clean Energy Fund there is so much scrutiny. It’s soul crushing.”

The vote on PCEF was supposed to happen in the morning session at council but was delayed by Mayor Ted Wheeler. A spokesman for the mayor wouldn’t say why.

Mapps was scheduled to be absent in the morning session because he was meeting with Casey Sixkiller, the new administrator for Region 10 of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which includes Oregon. Mapps attended the afternoon session.

It’s not unusual for commissioners to miss votes, and it takes just three members of the council to make a quorum, so the measure could have passed without Mapps present.

He ultimately voted yes.

Before the vote, Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who oversees the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, where PCEF is housed, assured fellow commissioners that she would keep an eye on the fund’s expenditures.

“I have committed, again and again, to ensure that the Portland Clean Energy Benefits Fund functions with unparalleled accountability, responsibility, and transparency,” Rubio said in a statement. “I’ve directed fund staff to carry out further due diligence over the next 45 days, and no funds will be distributed before this additional review is complete.”

Unlike in the first round of PCEF grants, Donnie Oliveira, the head of the Planning Bureau, can nix any grant between now and when the money is disbursed to the grantee, should he find cause to do so.

PCEF said 141 nonprofit organizations submitted 162 grant applications. The amounts 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. The total funding requested was $223 million.

In the end, PCEF funded 65 grants worth $107 million. Allowances for inflation, which is raging around the world, pushed the maximum amount available to grantees to $122 million.

PCEF is awash in cash. It had assets of $298 million in the fiscal year that started July 1, according to Mayor Wheeler’s proposed budget. That includes a beginning balance of $207 million and new revenue from taxes of $90.5 million. Some of that money is earmarked for grants made last year.

PCEF estimates that grants made in the clean energy and innovation categories will displace 300,000 metric tons of CO2. A round-trip flight from Boston to London and back emits about 1 ton of CO2 per passenger, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Climate Portal.