Rubio Seeks to Funnel Millions In Clean Energy Tax Revenue to City Bureaus for Existing Work

City Commissioner Carmen Rubio is set to announce a list of existing city programs tomorrow on which she’ll recommend spending the unanticipated revenues.

Carmen Rubio (Sam Gehrke)

City Commissioner Carmen Rubio will this week announce her plans to funnel millions of dollars of unanticipated tax revenues from the Portland Clean Energy Fund to existing climate-related city projects, including those within the cash-strapped transportation bureau.

“Tomorrow, Commissioner Rubio will be making an announcement related to unanticipated revenues from the Portland Clean Energy Fund and propose additional investments in existing city climate related work,” chief of staff to Rubio, Jillian Schoene, told WW on Tuesday.

Rubio’s office declined to discuss which city projects and programs it’s proposing to fund. But the effort to funnel unanticipated PCEF revenues into city bureaus for climate-related projects marks a significant change in how the voter-approved PCEF tax dollars are used—turning some of the tax’s money inward to fund existing projects at city bureaus, one of which is facing a steep budget cut.

In an interview earlier this week, Commissioner Mingus Mapps told WW that he’s hopeful two of his bureaus—the Portland Bureau of Transportation and the Bureau of Environmental Services—will receive at least $7 million of the unanticipated PCEF revenue. (Schoene confirmed PBOT is slated to receive more than $7 million, and if the funding is approved, it could save PBOT $7 million in general fund dollars. PBOT is currently facing a $32 million budget shortfall in the upcoming year.)

Mapps’ chief of staff, Michelle Rodriguez, says many city bureaus submitted a list of projects they hoped could be eligible for the unanticipated PCEF dollars. “We were told that we should except some dollars coming in to PBOT and BES,” Rodriguez says, “but no final dollars or even which budget year it hits.”

PCEF is a tax on large retailers, passed by voters in 2018, that promised to funnel money into climate preparedness and resiliency projects, targeted at helping communities of color. The city estimated the tax would bring in about $50 million annually; in its second year it brought in $116 million, far exceeding the city’s projections.

Awash in more dollars than the program had expected, and hit by a spring 2022 audit that found the program had lax oversight and little transparency, Rubio ushered through big tweaks last fall to the PCEF program including what, and who, is eligible for PCEF dollars. Most notably, she opened up eligibility for government entities and for-profit companies to apply for money for climate-related projects.

Then in September, the City Council approved a $750 million climate plan using PCEF dollars. The plan prescribes specific amounts of money for tree planting and energy efficiency upgrades in affordable apartment buildings. Now, with the latest list of city projects and programs that could be funded by unanticipated PCEF revenues, the bounds of what PCEF can and will fund could once again be stretched.

A 9-member PCEF committee recommends where PCEF dollars go for each round of funding. Those recommendations then go to City Council, which can tweak as it pleases. Even if the PCEF committee bristles at the list of proposals released by Rubio’s office tomorrow, the City Council has ultimate say over where PCEF dollars go, so long as they fit within the bounds of the ballot measure’s language.

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