Office of Civic Life Looks to Reroute $500,000 From Five Nonprofits to Neighborhood-Based Grants

The bureau’s new commissioner-in-charge has pledged to revitalize the city’s neighborhood associations.

City Commissioner Dan Ryan at Rose Festival City Fair. (Chris Nesseth)

The Office of Community & Civic Life plans to cut $500,000 in guaranteed funding from five nonprofits that focus on communities of color and instead use that money to maintain funding for its neighborhood offices and bolster its small grants program for neighborhood groups.

For more than a decade, five nonprofits—in recent years they included the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, Urban League, Latino Network, Unite Oregon and the Native American Youth and Family Center—have collectively received around $850,000 a year from the bureau for civic engagement projects serving BIPOC communities under the Diversity and Civic Leadership program.

But in Civic Life’s budget proposal this January, it proposed cutting the diversity funding in half and instead rerouting much of that funding to the small grants program, through which any neighborhood or community group can request modest amounts of funding. The remaining money will go toward maintaining funding for the bureau’s district coalition offices, which support neighborhood associations.

The shift is likely to be controversial. The last two city commissioners to oversee Civic Life prior to Dan Ryan, Chloe Eudaly and Jo Ann Hardesty, both weakened the bureau’s emphasis on neighborhood associations, pointing out they had long been criticized for wielding outsized influence at City Hall and for excluding minority communities.

But when Wheeler handed Commissioner Ryan the embattled bureau earlier this year, he made it clear he would work to strengthen neighborhood associations again. (Civic Life has long been notoriously dysfunctional. A 2021 audit described a culture of bullying and mismanagement at the bureau.)

In 2021, Mayor Ted Wheeler advised the bureau to slash its budget by 5%, decreasing its neighborhood budget. The year prior, the bureau cut its small grants program entirely, a cut which extended through the 2021 fiscal year. Over the past two fiscal years, the city used general fund dollars to backfill the 5% neighborhood budget shortfall. But this year, Civic Life will endure another steep cut: Its cannabis program, which makes up 23% of the bureau’s annual budget, is moving to another bureau.

In a March 20 budget meeting of the City Council, Civic Life staff explained that the cut to the Diversity and Civic Leadership program would help make up for the cannabis program’s removal—and help boost funding for the small grants program.

At last week’s budget meeting, Commissioner Mingus Mapps asked if the bureau had heard from the DCL nonprofits about the proposed cut.

“Nothing from them,” Civic Life interim director T.J. McHugh responded, “but from the neighborhood associations that we’re shifting the money to, they’re all extremely happy.”

“Great,” Mapps replied.

Unite Oregon executive director Khanh Le said the organization was “alarmed” to learn about the proposed cut.

“We met with Commissioner Ryan on March 10 with our program staff, and his office made no mention of any potential cuts to programming,” Le said. “We are urging Commissioner Ryan and the rest of the City Council to recognize the impact this decision will have on the communities they serve, especially as we recover from the COVID pandemic, and to fully restore the budget to enable the continued success of these programs.”

After bureau director Michael Montoya took temporary leave last month, Ryan named top aide T.J. McHugh as interim director. McHugh spent years as a marketing executive for companies like Nike and Macy’s, and ran Ryan’s reelection campaign last year. He then joined Ryan’s office as a director of special projects.

City bureaus have yet to receive guidance back from the City Budget Office about their proposed budgets.

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