Commissioner Carmen Rubio Proposes Sweeping Reform to Portland Clean Energy Fund

The changes aim to shine sunlight on the fund, which has garnered intense criticism for lack of accountability since its infancy.

PCEF - Depave Depave is an organization using PCEF (Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund) dollars. At Powell Butte Elementary School, they removed 7400 square feet of asphalt and replaced it with shade trees, plants and playing areas. (Stephanie Yao Long/Courtesy of City of Portland)

Commissioner Carmen Rubio will propose changes to the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund, the $300 million pot of discretionary cash that has drawn criticism for lax due diligence in its grant process and poor measurement of its performance as it distributes money for climate projects aimed at disadvantaged communities.

Rubio plans to present her proposed changes to the PCEF committee later today. The official ordinance would not be voted on by the Portland City Council until mid-October.

PCEF, as it’s known, raises tens of millions of dollars per year from a levy on large retailers. It has been subject to criticism since its infancy—including an audit earlier this spring that found PCEF failed to adequately track, measure and report its performance. Rubio’s proposed changes are sweeping and aim to address various issues, including lack of accountability and less than rigorous vetting.

Perhaps most notably, the proposed changes would expand who can do climate work on behalf of the city and how. Rubio seeks to add two additional branches of funding mechanisms, loans and contracts, both of which give the city more control over the use of PCEF dollars.

The fund has brought in higher than expected revenue. The tax brought in $63 million its first year and $116 million in its second. It’s 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. Grants are awarded by a nine-member committee and must be approved by the City Council.

The changes Rubio will present later today are twofold.

First, she seeks to implement five-year strategic plans for PCEF that includes new and existing priorities and fit into the city’s overall climate goals. Immediate priorities to add include expanding the city’s tree canopy and implementing energy upgrades in affordable apartment buildings. Other priorities Rubio seeks to include in the first five-year plan are improved housing and commercial building energy efficiency, transportation decarbonization, and easy-access loans for carbon-reduction endeavors.

Second, Rubio seeks to expand the ways PCEF funds projects by including loans and contracts as funding vehicles in addition to community grants. Government entities and for-profit companies could seek loans and contracts from the fund, something they’ve not been able to do with the community grants program.

Other changes to Portland city code would include ending the prioritization of employing “chronically under-employed” people and eliminating the “innovation” pool of dollars and instead reallocate those to specific categories of projects.

“We have the opportunity to complete big projects that help to reduce carbon from our two largest sources of emissions—transportation and housing—and make historic investments in our city’s tree canopy,” Rubio said in a statement. “We must make these investments happen as quickly as possible, and we can do so without compromising oversight and accountability, or community vision.”

As reported by The Oregonian, PCEF’s biggest grantee last year had a history of defrauding energy companies and of tax evasion. The city soon clawed back the $12 million award. Oregonian reporter Shane Kavanaugh, who broke the story, was awarded the Bruce Baer Award earlier this week—the highest prize for Oregon investigative journalism.

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