NEWS RELEASE: Multnomah County Chair and Commissioners identify legislative priorities

January 3, 2024

For immediate release

Media Contact: Julie Sullivan-Springhetti at

Multnomah County Chair and Commissioners identify legislative priorities

Boosting behavioral Health, public safety and mitigating hazardous plumes

Chair Jessica Vega Pederson at the 2024 Legislative Breakfast
Multnomah County, Ore. (Jan. 3, 2024) — Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson today urged area legislators to increase spending for mental health and residential drug treatment, strengthen public safety and knock down barriers to housing.

“We need you,’’ she told 13 legislators at a breakfast roundtable that laid out the County’s priorities for the legislative short session scheduled to run from Feb. 5 to March 10.

“It’s going to take more than what we’ve been doing.  But I’m feeling optimistic about what’s possible because we’re working together more closely and in better coordination than ever before.’’

Commissioners Jesse Beason, Julia Brim-Edwards and Lori Stegmann, Sheriff Nicole Morrisey O’Donnell, and District Attorney Mike Schmidt joined the Chair in identifying priorities with Oregon House and Senate members who represent County residents. Chief among the issues: behavioral health, homeless services and public safety.

Near the top of the list: a $7.5 million ask to help Multnomah County and other communities deal with a surge of people charged with a crime who cannot mentally assist in their own defense. Historically, those individuals were sent to the Oregon State Hospital or assigned to the County to receive mental health services. But because the State Hospital is at capacity while complying with a federal court decision that sets discharge deadlines, the number of “aid and assist’’ clients assigned to receive services in Multnomah County has more than quadrupled and is growing.

“The resources have not followed this increase in the number of people being served,’’ Chair Vega Pederson said. “This means that more and more individuals are not being connected to the services they need most.’’

The Chair also called upon the state to expand the number and type of residential drug treatment facilities. The need is so great, the Chair said, that in December, County staff made 23 referrals for residential services, but only one person could be placed. The County is actively working to address such needs, and today announced a fast-tracked partnership with the State, the City of Portland and Central City Concern to provide treatment and temporary housing for up to 70 people experiencing substance use disorders in Portland.   

Addressing public consumption, alternatives to jail 

Commissioner Julia Brim-Edwards
“The County is asking legislators for a statewide ban on public consumption of illicit drugs,” said Commissioner Brim-Edwards. She said the County needs legislators to give the district attorney additional tools to effectively prosecute drug violations, as well as fund more treatment and peer support. The goal is to give the Courts an authentic and effective alternative to sending people with substance use disorders to jail.

Addressing the crippling shortage of public defenders is also a priority, Brim-Edwards said, a request echoed by District Attorney Schmidt. Because people charged with crimes have a constitutional right to an attorney, the shortage of public defenders has led to felony cases being routinely dismissed by the courts. Brim-Edwards also urged the Legislature to support education funding for students in detention and to fully fund community corrections. Last year, the County had to backfill a $6 million state funding shortfall in community public safety.

County urges eviction prevention and housing production

Commissioner Lori Stegmann

Commissioner Stegmann, who represents East Multnomah County, described how the County has invested local funds to expand shelter, transitional housing and other beds for people in recovery and for families. She asked that legislators not allow the state to “backslide” on any shelter investments as federal COVID-19 relief goes away.

She also stressed the importance of prevention efforts to keep people in their homes, noting that an eviction notice on someone’s history can be more of a barrier to housing than a felony.

“Finally,’’ Stegmann said, “we cannot shelter our way out of this housing and homelessness crisis. We need the Legislature to address the housing shortage by rapidly increasing housing production, including investments in infrastructure such as water, sewer, stormwater and transportation.”

County seeks action on deadly gas threat after Cascadia earthquake

Commissioner Jesse Beason
Commissioner Beason asked lawmakers to respond to a 2023 Multnomah County report that found that in the event of a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake, toxic plumes from storage tanks could kill thousands of people and sicken tens of thousands.

The report found that the hazardous gasses would emerge from more than 1,000 above-ground chemical storage tanks. The storage facilities, built in North and Northeast Portland before current seismic standards, are located on soil that will liquify when the ground moves, causing them to rupture. Developing a further understanding of this newly identified threat and charting a path forward are critical, Beason said.

“The legislation we support will develop a more comprehensive picture of our region's risk to chemical exposures following a megaquake. This is a first step to prevent needless deaths,’’ Beason said.

Legislators attending the breakfast discussion included Sens. Michael Dembrow and Lew Frederick and Reps. Dacia Grayber, Mark Gamba, Rob Nosse, Hoa Nguyen, Khanh Pham, Tawna Sanchez, Thuy Tran, Travis Nelson, Andrea Valderrama, Lisa Reynolds, and Ricki Ruiz.