State of the County 2015: Prepared remarks

June 12, 2015

Thank you, everyone. It's a pleasure to be here this afternoon. I can't begin to tell you how excited I am to give my first State of the County speech at City Club.

The City Club plays an important role in our community. And no one knew that better than my mother, Gretchen Miller Kafoury, who died three months ago at the age of 72.

As a child, I remember noticing how much she did for others. She gave shelter to the homeless, provided a safe haven to women escaping domestic violence, and taught children in our public schools. She pushed for equal rights for people of color, women, gays and lesbians, and others at a time when those views weren't too popular. She gave of herself to make the community better.

And because of that fierce advocacy for equal rights, she and a small group of women came together in 1972 to fight and end 50 years of male dominance of this very same City Club.

She helped make the best parts of who I am. And inspired me toward public and community service. I am to stand before you today as chair of Multnomah County, I only wish she could be here sitting in the city club that she helped to change and the community she gave so much to so she could listen to me give this speech.

We sit here today at the center of two very different worlds in Multnomah County.

In one world, the business climate is clearly improving, personal income is up and so are tax receipts. The structural fears for our economy have subsided, real estate values have rebounded and there is a sense that we have turned a corner, and that we can imagine what progress looks like.

But in the other world, literally with the same geographic center, we have not just seen an economic recession but a fundamental restructuring of society. Unemployment may be down, but so are the number of living wage jobs. And far too many people are just one unexpected setback -- a job loss, a bad doctor’s visit, a divorce -- away from the edge.

I promise I won’t inundate you with statistics today but for a moment let me lay out the stark disparities between these two worlds.

Of the roughly 760,000 people in Multnomah County, nearly 250,000 of them don’t make enough money to meet their basic needs: rent, food and health care.

In fact 130,000 people, more than the entire population of Gresham, often don’t know where their next meal will come from.

One third of households in Multnomah County makes less than [thirty five thousand dollars] a year. Half make less than $52,000.

And only about 8,000 households make a combined income of $250,000 or more, which makes up a miniscule percentage of Multnomah County. But I’m guessing a much higher percentage of those of us in this room.

White families in Portland have recouped the wages they lost during the recession, but no one else has.

That means that on average, if you’re Latino there are three Portland neighborhoods where you can reasonably afford to buy a home. If you’re Black or Native American? Zero.

The growing inequality in our community is displacing long-time residents and changing the nature of our neighborhoods. And the weight of this crisis is being felt disproportionately by communities of color and women, many of them single mothers.

I don’t cite these figures to make anyone here feel guilty. I cite them because these are the facts that confront the Multnomah County Commission on a daily basis.

When people come to Multnomah County for help, it's because other solutions failed. They often have no where else to go.

We’re responsible for mental health. We help the elderly and the disabled, survivors of domestic violence, homeless families, and those struggling with drug and alcohol addictions.

The most important fact staring us in the face is that we will never have enough money to fix all the problems in our community. That means we are morally obligated to make very difficult decisions about how to prioritize the dollars we do have.

I’m proud to tell you today that Multnomah County is on solid financial footing and because of that, we can make targeted investments that will change lives.

Last month I proposed a budget that invests in housing for families and veterans, support for kids so they can succeed at school and in the basic infrastructure that allows us all to get to work, visit a doctor or attend classes.

And the budget I proposed is balanced for three years, with reserves fully funded at 10 percent of the general fund.

This is a result of both good decision making over the past decade, which has kept us from overspending, and increased revenue as the overall economy has picked up. With that said, I have built my budget with three principles in mind.

First, there is no guarantee that these dollars will continue. Until we have a better view of the long term financial trajectory of the County they should be viewed conservatively as a one-time infusion.

We must recognize that our costs will increase and our resources will fail to keep pace. The needs we serve will continue to grow. And the county faces a $7.6 million increase in general fund PERS costs next year. I make no judgment as I say that. But these growing costs and the uncertainty that we face mean we must fully fund our reserves. If we can do better, we should.

Second, we should spend these dollars wisely. There are investments that we can make now, like paying in advance for future construction or reducing disparities in our community, that can save us real money in the future. That will allow us to serve our mission better and stretch future dollars.

Third, we can finally consider where needs are so great as to justify spending new dollars. And because we are on solid financial footing, it means we can now go further in executing our mission.

I’m going to talk more today about my budget, but first I want to tell you what Multnomah County’s been doing over the past year.

One of my first acts as chair was to establish a $15 minimum wage for all employees. In fact, our board of commissioners was the first elected body in the state to do this. We know the main driver of our economic health is from the ground up - not from the top down.

It is shameful that someone can work 40 hours a week and still worry about basic necessities. Hard work should always pay off – that’s what we tell our kids. But that’s not true for everyone in our community and it’s ripping apart our social fabric.

As the government entity charged with helping those in need, it is our duty to lead on policies that make things better for working families. And hold ourselves accountable to the message that we want to send to other employers. Oregonians need workplace policies that give them a Fair Shot -- in the words of one of the most important coalitions working today to help everyday Oregonians get ahead and stay ahead.

In a recent survey of our employees, we found that women were taking an average of six weeks of unpaid leave to stay home with a new baby. Given that women are increasingly the primary breadwinners for their families, just a few days without an income can really hurt. That’s why I’m developing a plan to provide our employees - both men and women - with paid family leave so that all parents can spend those precious early days with their new baby.

Multnomah County is also leading the way in the state and nationally on justice reinvestment, driving changes in our criminal justice system to lower crime and reduce recidivism. We recently received a [one hundred fifty thousand dollar] grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to improve care for people facing mental health issues in our jails. This is the result of years of hard work by Commissioner Judy Shiprack.

We’ve also taken action to make sure our children are safer by keeping e-cigarettes out of their hands.

As a mother I was shocked to find out that my nine year old daughter could walk into a convenience store and buy an e-cigarette. Not that, of course, my darling Anna ever would.

The “vaping” industry – like the tobacco industry and its marketing of regular cigarettes – targets our children. In a survey of more than 600 retail stores in the county, products are sold with flavors like “Gummy Bears” and “Bubble Gum” meant to attract youth. And they are regularly sold next to candy.

School resource officers have seen students vaping – and even toddlers are getting their hands on them: poison control calls are up locally and nationwide. This past December in New York a one-year-old boy died after drinking from a liquid nicotine cartridge.

On April 5 of this year, our county ordinance banning the sale of e-cigarettes to children took effect. We weren’t going to wait for tragedy to strike another family.

And I’m happy to tell you that two weeks ago Governor Brown signed legislation that made our e-cigarette regulation a statewide policy.

Because I served three sessions in the Oregon Legislature, I know the importance of trying to address things on the statewide level as well as the local level.

Another issue that we’ve been successful on this session is changing Oregon’s Senior Property tax deferral to allow more low income seniors to stay in their homes.

We know this is the kind of policy that pays off in the long run. It keeps seniors out of facilities and expensive care. It lets them age in place, in comfort. And it pays for itself.

Changes in the housing market were unfairly preventing some seniors from taking advantage of the program, and some program requirements were keeping seniors from downsizing. So we asked lawmakers to make some important changes to keep the program working and I’m happy to say that Gov. Brown has signed this bill as well.

I’m an impatient person - it’s genetic; something I certainly inherited from my mother. I get tired of hearing excuses. And you can trust that when I say I’m going to do something, I’ll get it done.

That’s why I’ve focused so much energy on replacing our downtown courthouse. It is seismically unsafe and fixing it is my top capital priority. This critical project simply cannot be put off any longer.  It can’t be another project that people talk about for decades and then nothing gets done. After 45 years and 29 studies that outline the hazards, action is way overdue.  We must rebuild the courthouse now.

I’m making a significant investment into this project this year because each dollar we invest today means fewer dollars we’ll have to bond. That will save us money in future years.

And it is with pride that Multnomah County will complete the replacement of the Sellwood Bridge in the next year.

This is another project that sat on the shelf for years until the bridge scored a sufficiency rating of 2 out of 100. Now at 80 percent complete, the bridge project is on track to meet its diverse workforce goals and is Oregon’s first registered Greenroads project. But what I really love about the Sellwood Bridge is that the only time my son Jacob’s friends thought I was cool was when they saw me driving across the bridge deck on TV.

We’ve made progress in the past year, but we have a lot more to do to heal our community. And this is where our job gets really hard. The need in our community is very real. I’m willing to bet that most of us in this room don’t worry about our next meal or if there will be a roof over our head tonight, but for far too many of our neighbors those worries are real.

This is what it means to be living on the edge:

July Jackson could barely make the payments on her family’s two-bedroom apartment after the rent went up. Then, she dropped a bottle of perfume down the toilet and spent all her savings to hire a plumber. She got behind and was evicted.

She and her two kids moved in with relatives, then into their car, then into a shelter. She says the embarrassment and danger of homelessness are hardest on her kids.

A plumbing problem for most of us would be an inconvenience. To this family, it was life-changing. When families are living paycheck-to-paycheck, it’s nearly impossible to get back on track – much less ahead.

Shemirah Thomas came to Oregon with her three little kids to escape an abuser who broke the bones in her face. But in Portland she couldn’t find an affordable apartment, and the family landed in a shelter. Each morning her two boys arrive at their elementary school tired and hungry. School staff complain that her kids are dirty, she says. She and her 3-year-old daughter spend the day in their car, driving around or sleeping.

All of us want to be safe – and we want our kids to be safe. So does Shemirah. And due to her bravery, her children are more safe, but they won’t be secure or stable without a permanent place to live.

It is for these two mothers, their children - and many others like them - that I’ve spent much of my career working to end the daily tragedy of homelessness.

It is heartbreaking work, but it is also invigorating when we make progress.

A report published in 2013 revealed that in the decade prior, our work resulted in housing more than 12,000 homeless families. And after 12 months, 84 percent of those families were still housed. 84 percent.

One of the big policy changes we made is to go out into the community to find those families who needed our help, instead of waiting for them to come to us. We fund mobile housing advocates that find families and place them into affordable apartments with the help of short-term rent assistance, completely bypassing the shelter system.

I am proud of this success, and pausing to acknowledge our progress helps to keep us going. But it certainly doesn’t overshadow these two facts:

Tonight, in Multnomah County, there will be more than 1,800 people sleeping on our sidewalks, and last year, 3,000 school-aged children experienced homelessness.

We’ve still got a lot of work to do. And the first step is to break down artificial jurisdictional boundaries between governments, their programs and funding to fight homelessness.

When a mother or father is looking for a safe, dry, warm place for their kids to sleep, they don’t care about jurisdictional boundaries -- and neither do I.

What do I mean by that? Well, it used to be that serving homeless families was the county’s responsibility and working with homeless individuals was the responsibility of the city of Portland.

Now, the county, the cities of Portland and Gresham, together with Home Forward, Meyer Memorial Trust and our community partners, are taking a more coordinated approach. One that will help us reduce administrative costs, close gaps in services, and -- ultimately -- reduce homelessness.

Together we’ve formed a partnership called A Home For Everyone, which has developed a cohesive plan that unites direct service providers, city, county and federal resources.

By aligning our goals and our resources we have identified how to reduce by half the number of people without a home by 2017. 

And all of us are putting real money behind the effort: My budget includes $2 million in new ongoing county funding to help individuals and families find permanent homes.

And for the first time ever, we are putting $5 million into a housing development fund to increase the number of affordable units in the county.

These investments, together with those proposed in Mayor Charlie Hales' budget, will allow us to meet our shared commitment to end veteran homelessness and ensure that no family is ever turned away from emergency shelter. We will also expand the housing resources available to the hundreds of families and youth experiencing homelessness in our community every night.

Let me talk about the first step: housing every homeless veteran by the end of 2015.

When we adopted this plan in January we identified 422 veterans who were homeless -- either sleeping on our streets, in our shelters, or in transitional housing. Multnomah County, the city of Portland, and Home Forward combined significant local dollars with federal funding -- and with the help of the VA and our non-profit community partners, we are making real progress toward our goal.

Between January and the end of April, we were able to house 208 of those veterans. Recognizing that even as we house veterans, new veterans become homeless, we estimate that between now and December, we will need to find housing for about 61 veterans each month. I’m confident we will meet that goal, but we do need continued support from the community, especially rental property managers. Our biggest challenge is finding apartments for veterans in this tight rental market, so if you can help, I hope you will. 

With your support, we can ensure that no one who served our country is left sleeping on our streets.

I should mention that the county isn’t just investing in veteran housing, we’re also expanding services for veterans, an effort led by Commissioner Diane McKeel. The goal is to make it easier than ever for us to help vets find a home or get a job. We even put Veterans Services in the name of the division in charge of that work for the first time.

In the same way that we determined what it would take to end veteran homelessness, we have been able to model what it will take to significantly reduce homelessness overall.

In order to reduce street and shelter homelessness by 50 percent in two years, we need to increase the number of people we house from the current level -- about 3,000 people per year -- to 4,000 people per year. And at the same time, we need to reduce the rate at which people return to homelessness.

The money we’re investing is a great first step, but it’s not enough. We need businesses to invest in the effort and we need developers to step up.

It’s clear this is not something that’s going to go away on its own. And given what we know about the impact of the Great Recession on people of color and women, the findings from the latest Point-In-Time count shouldn’t come as a surprise. While homelessness overall is relatively stable in our county, there has been a spike in homelessness among African Americans and women with children.

The policies that are in place now -- the way we’ve been doing business -- has worked just fine for the people in this room. But there are thousands of people who have been left behind. And for them, the American dream is nothing more than that -- a dream.

I don’t want to tell my son Alexander that the reason he’s going to be successful is the zip code he was born in. Across the county, I hear from people who are struggling to pay their rent or find affordable housing. And my county department heads tell me that a lack of affordable housing is impeding their work. Once we put a roof over someone’s head, we can begin to build a solid foundation under their feet.

A stable home allows us to more effectively tackle other problems – like a drug addiction, mental health issues or helping them find a job.

A quick note before I move on. I want to take a moment to explain who “us” is.

Multnomah County has incredibly committed employees, and I want to thank them personally for their service. Their hard work and dedication infuses thousands of lives with hope.

But the county cannot do this alone. The challenges people face can’t be solved by one government. Fortunately, our community is filled with organizations and businesses that want to help. We partner with hundreds of organizations - that’s hundreds of pairs of helping hands throughout the county and I can’t imagine one day at Multnomah County without them. These organizations have skills and perspectives that are vital to our work.

For example, in this year’s budget, I’ve set aside $1 million for a new Behavioral Health Center designed to provide specialized care and support for individuals experiencing a mental health crisis. This is a collaborative effort led by hospitals, local mental health providers, and city and county leaders to strengthen our crisis safety net.

And because everyone we help ultimately wants the security of a job - we are also doing our part to support small businesses. The county has decided to align its compensation exemption with that of the city of Portland. This allows small business owners to keep more of the money they earn - and I certainly hope that they choose to reinvest those dollars in growing their businesses. More jobs are needed - and wanted by those we help.

So as we -- the county, cities and our community partners -- address the very real and immediate needs of the homeless I want to talk about preventing crisis in the first place.

Prevention is the more humane and cost effective way to support our families, and it starts with our youngest residents.

The county doesn’t run schools, but we can make sure that kids go to school ready to learn -- and this effort starts at birth.

We are continuing to fund the Multnomah County Healthy Birth Initiative – an effort focused solely on African American women. This community of women face higher rates of infant mortality and low birth weight. By working to improve the health of the mothers and fathers, we can improve the health of their children from birth.

We know that when kids are hungry or sick they have trouble learning and attending classes. That’s why the county partners with school districts and community organizations to operate SUN Schools, which make sure kids can get a meal and have a safe place to go after school is out.

Amanda Wolff makes sure the kids who attend her SUN School at Floyd Light Middle School get something to eat. And that meal is a big deal to kids.

“Maybe they go home and eat again,” Wolff says, “maybe they don’t.”

Families also get help with parenting classes and new ways to connect with neighbors. These kinds of wrap around services provide support so that kids can be safe and healthy in and out of school.

And culturally specific community partners like the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, which coordinates SUN Schools in four school districts, bring experiences and insights that the county doesn’t have and unique strategies to connect with and support youth and families.

In my budget we are funding new SUN schools in the Parkrose, Gresham and Reynolds school districts. We are also making sure our SUN schools are equipped with more of the tools they need to serve children who are increasingly affected by trauma, poverty and housing instability.

We are expanding on the ground support in schools to help improve attendance and decrease suspensions and expulsions. We are investing in our early kindergarten transition program – where parents and their children are invited into the classroom well before schools starts.

When a child starts school, it’s a big deal in every family. But for those who face language or cultural barriers, we know that early intervention will lead to greater parental involvement and student success.

I’m also proposing that we invest in more mental health services in our schools.

Right now only one-in-four schools in our county has a dedicated mental health consultant. One of those is Oliver Elementary, in the Centennial School District, where nearly 90 percent of the students live in poverty.

Principal Laura Fendall says many of her kids begin school with undiagnosed behavioral, emotional and learning disorders. Many more would benefit from a trained mental health professional to help them cope with trauma they may have experienced at home or in their neighborhoods.

More than 60 percent of Laura’s students are children of color but Fendall says, “Where do you find a Spanish-speaking therapist? If you do find one, there’s a very long wait.”

That’s why I am working with school districts to expand culturally specific mental health services in schools with a focus on Latino and African American students.

We are also continuing our partnership with Worksystems, Inc., including funding for our shared SummerWorks program. Under the leadership of Commissioner Loretta Smith we’ve doubled funding for this program, which puts hundreds of kids to work. On the job they learn skills ranging from the basics like which bus line to take in the morning and the importance of showing up on time, to what kind of career they’re best suited for and how to get it.

All of these policies are about prevention, but they are also about getting kids on the right path.

We know that early traumas affect how kids grow: An abusive parent, an early brush with police or growing up hungry. And we know the work we are doing makes a difference. Investments early in life can keep our kids in schools and out of trouble.

And when a kid winds up in our jail or juvenile detention, we need to act quickly to avoid losing them to the criminal justice system.

When a teenager steals a car, it’s rarely the first time they’ve done something wrong. What if we had reached out to that child and his family at the first sign of trouble when he was 12?

Well, I’m done asking ‘What if?’ That’s why I’ve included a new Juvenile Justice Diversion effort in my proposed budget. This program will bring together community providers, the court system, school districts, and law enforcement to keep first time offenders out of the justice system and improve their lives.

By giving these kids the attention they need early on and helping them maintain the positive ties in their life, whether that’s school, church or family – we can help them stay out of trouble and achieve their full potential.

This is an example of the very real, meaningful change we are working hard to deliver at Multnomah County. It’s not easy, and it won’t happen overnight, but we have the data to know what works.

A lot of what I’ve talked about today is basic fairness - ensuring that we are a community where everyone is given a chance - a chance for opportunity and a chance for success. But there are deep disparities in our county. Rates of illness and life expectancy are worse for people of color. And if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, things will only get worse.

I can’t change our history, but I can promise you that I am committed to making our community more equitable and the county more inclusive.

My 2016 budget includes $30.4 million in programs that aim to reduce racial and ethnic disparities. That’s a 12 percent increase over last year. That includes investing in the Future Generations Collaborative, which empowers urban Native American elders to lead our Health Department’s efforts to support healthier births. My budget also includes training for 25 new community health workers for the African immigrant community and another half million dollars for culturally responsive case management.

I want to back up for a second and talk about how I learned about the needs of the African immigrant community because it shows how we’re changing the way the county serves our increasingly diverse population.

When Ebola broke out in western Africa last year county staff started hearing stories about discrimination against Liberian immigrants. Multnomah County had been tracking Ebola since early summer, but I didn’t expect that many African families living here would suffer because of the Ebola outbreak.

I wanted to help so I asked to meet community leaders at Africa House in Northeast Portland. The stories that I heard were shocking. People who have lived and worked here were being shunned. Others were afraid to go to the doctor in case their neighbors thought they had Ebola.

Understanding these experiences led us to change the way we managed the Ebola threat and it still informs my work with the community.

When I was developing my budget I held a series of community conversations. The goal was to understand what every segment of our community was experiencing, and what they wanted us to invest in.

One of those meetings was held at the Asian Health and Service Center in Southeast Portland, which provides health care, pre-school and lunches for seniors.

Those lunches are important. They’re made through partnerships with local restaurants so that when seniors show up to socialize the food they have to eat is familiar and satisfying.

We’ve learned that there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to hunger. That’s why I’m expanding funding for these kinds of culturally specific meal programs in my budget.

By looking at every aspect of our services, we can start to address the deep disparities in our community. And we’re not stopping there.

I am proposing bold action to reduce diesel emissions – both as a matter of public health, but also one of environmental justice.

When it comes to the nation’s worst diesel pollution, Oregon ranks 6th. Among counties, Multnomah County is the fourth worst. We’re worse than Los Angeles.

Lead, formaldehyde and soot in diesel can trigger asthma attacks and have been linked to preterm delivery and low-birth weight. Adults breathing diesel over time face a greater risk of cancer, heart disease and stroke. And we find concentrations of diesel emissions about 2-3 times higher where people of color live.

We’ve already retrofitted all county-owned equipment. Now, we are seeking out other efficiencies and county policies that can further this goal and working with others for a statewide solution.

Carbon emissions are down 14 percent from 1990, while our population and workforce has grown, showing that we can decrease emissions and grow the economy.

And in collaboration with the city of Portland, we are updating our Climate Action Plan, infusing Multnomah County values into the plan.

Instead of just talking about turning your lights out or turning your computer off before you go to bed, we’re talking about the vulnerable populations that we serve. The elderly, the homeless, and communities of color will be most impacted by climate change, so making our community climate resilient is a vital part of doing our job.

I want to thank Commissioner Jules Bailey for his leadership on this issue, and his work on our Property Assessed Clean Energy program, which encourages owners of commercial property to improve energy efficiency by offering financing through the property tax system. Innovative programs like these save businesses money and ultimately reduce the costs of climate change -- costs that we all bear.

Every challenge we encounter at the county is a tough one. There are similarities to why families fall into crisis – a job loss, illness, abuse, racism or the grip of addiction – but each story is unique and deeply personal. So we listen, we offer a helping hand and we chart a path forward. Seeing our community partners and county employees move families from crisis to stability is truly inspiring.

Isaura Ascensio is one of those Multnomah County employees. She brings the experience of being helped by the county as a young mother to her work.

She was 15 when she became a mom. Living on her own during high school while raising a son, Isaura credits county employees to her success. She says that a Multnomah County nurse, a school resource officer and a gang-prevention outreach worker saw only her potential. And because of their influence she graduated from high school and went to Portland State University. She also developed a mentor program on teen pregnancy prevention, volunteered at the county health department and mentored other Latinas on their educational goals.

Now, Isaura works for our human services department in community engagement. She brings people together. She helps those in need. Her perspective and her experiences make the county better. And she makes a difference in the lives of others – just like that nurse did for her years ago.

As the media and stock market and most of us in this room move on from the Great Recession, there are still too many of us who haven’t found a job, are struggling to pay for housing and are losing hope.

It makes me think the Great Recession was really a great restructuring that left our community more divided and unjust than it was before.

I don’t have an economics degree or a stack of studies to prove this point, but I do have the experiences of thousands of families that Multnomah County helps. Families that are still on the edge.

I think those experiences raise a moral question: What kind of community do we want to be?

And that’s where I find hope.

Because what we love about this county is our sense of community. I believe that when challenged, our community will respond. When given a choice of options, we will choose to become more inclusive, more caring and more fair.

Many of the questions that have been raised here today about income and outcome disparities, about who we serve and how we see community are not inherently comfortable.

And I see that as an overwhelmingly good thing. If we’re going to advance the cause of real community and do our best to change real people’s lives then we must not fail to ask uncomfortable questions and we must have the courage to re-examine how we do things along the way.

In the end what gives me hope is not the improved financial footing we now find beneath us, but the continued unfolding revelation that this place really is special. And community leadership is what defines that.

To be sure we have natural advantages over many other parts of the country. We have a great climate and gorgeous mountains. But what makes Multnomah County special is people like you, who care enough about their community to participate in the democratic process. And the people all over this county who frankly refuse to let us be anything less than great.

One of those people is here today. My husband Nik, who cooks for me, puts the kids to bed when I’m working late and who, especially this year -- holds me up.

My mom loved Multnomah County. And she was deeply proud to be a part of this community. And being here today surrounded by my colleagues and co-workers, I’ve never been more proud to feel a part of that legacy.