City Council to Hold Work Session on Future of Portland Clean Energy Fund Next Month

The top two mayoral candidates are at odds on the climate tax.

COLLABORATIVE: City Commissioner Carmen Rubio. (Brian Burk)

The Portland City Council will hold a public work session on the future of the Portland Clean Energy Fund next month.

PCEF is a tax on retailers passed by Portlanders in 2018 that aims to fund climate resiliency projects across the city through BIPOC contractors, but in recent months it’s become a significant point of contention on the City Council, particularly between the two leading mayoral candidates, Commissioners Carmen Rubio and Rene Gonzalez.

The work session is tentatively scheduled for mid-May. As WW previously reported, Gonzalez has said in recent months he’d like to explore putting PCEF back on the November ballot for major changes. Meanwhile, Rubio, who oversees the city bureau that administers PCEF, has spearheaded ongoing efforts to infuse hundreds of millions of dollars of unanticipated PCEF revenues into climate-adjacent projects that already exist within other city bureaus.

Earlier this spring, the PCEF Committee gave Rubio’s plan to infuse beleaguered city bureaus with PCEF dollars its first major green light: It approved $384 million in PCEF dollars for city bureaus over a five-year span. (That cluster of projects will still have to go in front of the City Council for final approval.) Another $158 million in projected excess revenues remains unallocated.

Rubio’s plan to invest excess PCEF revenue in city bureaus could be derailed by Gonzalez, should he get the necessary City Council support to send the measure back to the November ballot. That would require three of the five city commissioners to vote for sending it back. While Gonzalez has not specified how exactly he would change the tax, he’s explored the idea of capping the fund and giving all excess revenue to other city functions, like public safety.

For weeks, Gonzalez’s office has been pressing Rubio and other members of the City Council to schedule a PCEF work session. Most recently, Commissioner Dan Ryan’s office asked Mayor Wheeler earlier this week to get on board with a work session before the city’s next fiscal year budget is approved this summer.

On April 10, Ryan’s chief of staff, T.J. McHugh, wrote to Wheeler’s office that the commissioner wanted to talk about how to spend the excess PCEF revenues as soon as possible.

“Commissioner Ryan is in no way advocating for a repeal of this measure. His position is to ensure that the measure’s spirit is adhered to, but there needs to be meaningful debate on how the surplus funds should be used,” McHugh wrote. “With the city facing budget shortfalls and impending staff layoffs, the council has the fiscal responsibility to determine how the surplus funds should be spent. The Commissioner feels strongly that we should not let go of staff while we are sitting on a large fund that far exceeds its ability to spend.”

Ryan wrote April 11: “The public knows we are experiencing a lot of constraints with the [2024-25] budget, and they know we are sitting on a lot of cash in the PCEF account. I am concerned that the timing to drill down deeper as an entire council after the budget is mostly baked is tone deaf.”

Rubio chief of staff Jillian Schoene says her office has offered to hold a work session May 16 and is awaiting confirmation from two more offices.

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