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County Youth Commission budget protest gets friendly reception

Chair Jeff Cogen says county will keep funding the popular program

Student members of the Multnomah County Youth Commission got an eye-opening lesson in local budget politics this week.

Thursday afternoon, two dozens students and supporters staged a 'walk-in' to County Chair Jeff Cogen's office on the fourth floor of the county building to ask that he keep their commission from being cut - and then were promptly informed that they would indeed be saved after all.

'The Multnomah Youth Commission is not in danger of going away,' Cogen told them. 'There will be slightly less support available, but the commission is not going away.'

In the face of $12 million in looming budget cuts the county must make, Cogen explained that he's proposing that the county's Commission for Children, Families and Community trim $360,000.

Where those cuts come from is up to that office's director, Joshua Todd. Todd asked that any questions be cleared by the the county's communications staff, so it remains to be seen what will be programs will be affected.

The county board is set to vote on the budget Sept. 15.

Cogen told the students who gathered in a conference room near his office that the youth commission's administrative staff of slightly more than one full-time employee would likely shrink to three-quarters of a full-time equivalent position.

Idealistic youth

The 15-year-old commission is the only formal voice for youth in local government. Since Mayor Tom Potter created the Youth Bill of Rights in 2006, the city signed an intergovernmental agreement with the county to jointly fund and support it.

The commission includes 42 students in eighth grade through college, the bulk of them high school seniors. More than half are youth of color, and half are Portland Public School students - the rest come from private, alternative schools, colleges or other schools in the area. They hail from all parts of town.

'Right now we're youth, but we're growing up with things adults didn't grow up with,' says Sophia Kecskes, 16, a junior at Cleveland and chairwoman of the youth commission's 'voice' committee. 'Youth are a lot more idealistic in their opinions, which is helpful.'

She points to one of the commission's biggest accomplishments: working with TriMet and the Portland School Board to pioneer the TriMet YouthPass, enabling all high school students free bus transportation.

In an ironic twist, state funding for the YouthPass is drying up at the end of this year and the youth commission is trying to work to extend it.

The commission has worked to register students to vote, advocated for the Farm-to-School program at the state Legislature, advised various nonprofit groups and reached out to disengaged youth to gather feedback on school discipline, juvenile justice and gang involvement.

Cogen had written a letter to the youth commission a day before their walk-in, promising what he told them face to face. Apparently it wasn't crystal clear.


Here is the letter:

Dear Members of the Youth Commission:

Thank you for contacting me and sharing your concerns regarding the state staffing cuts impacting the Commission on Children, Families and Community (CCFC), which includes staffing for the Multnomah Youth Commission.

I, too, am upset by the cuts to state funded services provided by Multnomah County. In fact, the cut to CCFC staffing was just one of $12 million dollars in cuts to anti-poverty programs, parent/child development, abuse investigators, domestic violence services, family courts, drug and alcohol treatment, and the mental health crisis line - to name just a few.

The Board of County Commissioners passed a budget in June that included around $6 million to serve as a cushion to the state cuts we knew were coming. Simply put, we cannot fill the entire gap with that set aside. To make matters worse, the majority of the money we could afford to set aside was one-time-only money, which means that even if we 'saved' some programs, we'd have to find other money to fund them next year.

But I want to be clear - these state cuts in no way dissolve or get rid of the Multnomah Youth Commission. To say so is simply untrue.

Yesterday, I publicly shared my take on how to use some of that money to back-fill state programs, balancing the need for critical services with the knowledge that more federal and state cuts are on the way. This situation is now our new normal. More importantly, my proposal was a starting point for discussions on how to meet growing needs with shrinking resources.

Of course, these decisions must include input from stakeholders like yourselves and should represent the priorities of all members of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners. During the next week, we'll be discussing our options as a Board and as a community. I'm happy that you want to take part in this dialogue and I am looking forward to hearing from you tomorrow afternoon.

Thank you for your engagement on this.

Jeff