• Allan Classen

Why rush into a 10-year deal?

Updated: May 2, 2020

Who would vote against homeless services at a time like this? The HereTogether campaign backing a $2.5 billion, 10-year ballot measure is making that point with daily media messaging.

“This May, voters in our community will have the opportunity to forever change the reality of chronic homelessness in our region by voting YES on the Metro homeless services ballot measure.

“Now is not the time to ignore the most vulnerable people in our community. More than ever, we need to come together for the future of our region and ensure those experiencing chronic homelessness will have the support services they need to successfully transition to a life indoors.”

That is million-dollar public relations writing. In fact, by mid-April, the campaign had raised more than $600,000 to sell this pitch. HereTogether hired three high-level consulting firms to perfect its presentation, which in the absence of opposition and a dearth of public debate during the COVID-19 lockdown, is dominating the digital airwaves. Sophisticated persuasion succeeds by what it leaves out.

The ballot measure was rushed onto the primary election for strategic reasons to avoid conflict with another Metro bond measure (that was dropped after all). While there was time to tune up the messaging, there apparently was not time to know how the money would be spent. Beyond the percentages of tax revenue flowing to each of the three metropolitan Portland counties, the measure offers only a broad outline as to who will be paid to do what. Presumably, the money will go to the major nonprofits represented on the boards and committees of the HereTogether coalition.

The measure limits Metro’s administrative cut to 5 percent of the revenues, but that’s only the beginning of overhead costs. Collecting the tax may cost a similar amount. The remainder would go to the counties, which would have their own administrative expenses in deciding how to divide the pie among various service providers and then to monitoring the process to ensure funds are properly spent.

Finally, money would go to agencies, perhaps in larger allotments than they have seen before. These organizations will be motivated to lobby for a share of the money and expand their staffs to take on a hugely broadened mission, stressing them in myriad ways, none of which will be conducive to efficiency.

Metro must create an oversight committee for the bond program, but do not assume that accountability is therefore taken care of. Metro took a $125-million Oregon Zoo bond sold to voters as providing a reserve for retired elephants but the mandated oversight committee remained silent when that project was converted instead into an elephant breeding ground. Metro’s 2018 $650 million affordable housing bond is far behind its goals. Metro is being employed for its multi-jurisdiction taxing authority, not its record of bond management. Now is the time for a big picture look at the homelessness crisis. Voters have reason to question whether more money poured into our customary approaches is the answer. If that debate is not engaged now, when will it ever be?

Converting the expansive but never used Wapato Jail into a privately funded facility for up to 500 people appeals to almost every Portlander except those controlling public dollars. The initial annual operating costs for this facility would come to about 1 percent of the $250-million-a-year Metro proposal.

Why can’t a small share of this deep funding channel go to such a promising alternative? It could, of course, but Multnomah County and the HereTogether advocates have been so critical of the Wapato option that such assistance seems doubtful at best. Could it be because if business people and other private donors make Wapato work, it would undermine the political consensus sustaining what some have called the affordable housing-industrial complex?

A community debate on the two paths before us is essential. Ideally, we can pursue both at once and learn in time the strengths and limitations of each. Shutting down this debate and voting with our eyes closed makes no sense.

The only way to put everything on the table and let the community understand its options is to defeat Measure 26-210 this month. Rest assured that advocates will come back in November with more answers, more details and a better chance for voters to engage. Voter turnout will also be greater then.

By then, we will better understand the impact of the pandemic on homelessness, the economy and future tax revenues. Delaying the vote six months would not affect the beginning of taxation to fund services. The pause might even lead to an agreement to include the Wapato facility—known as the Bybee Lakes Hope Center—in future funding.

Why the rush to leap into a 10-year course when the wisest among us have no idea now as to which way is up or down?

(Please leave a comment by scrolling down a bit further to the Comments section.)


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