Backed by a stable economy and a balanced budget, Multnomah County can focus on the future, Chair Deborah Kafoury told a packed ballroom in her second State of the County address.
The county has invested in affordable housing and social services, she said to state and local elected leaders, county staff and community partners at the annual City Club of Portland event.
The county has stepped in to protect citizens from unsafe public buildings and critical bridges, and to keep tobacco away from our kids.
Then came the news, last month, that families in two Portland neighborhoods - including hers - may have been exposed to elevated levels of heavy metals. Forest Service researchers found that moss collected in neighborhoods across Portland had high levels of arsenic and cadmium.
In the midst of the fear, confusion and questions, county staff stepped in to find answers.
“I work alongside 6,000 of the most passionate and dedicated public servants in the country,’’ Chair Kafoury said. “I have seen how much good we can do when we move from saying, “We should” to, “We can. And we will.”
A Safety Net
Multnomah County is part of a regional partnership that is investing in affordable housing and building a safety net for those who fall through the cracks. Last year Multnomah County dedicated $5 million to access affordable housing and an additional $2.5 million to expand support services. The City of Portland and Multnomah County promised to set aside an additional $30 million for shelters, affordable housing and placement services.
It’s part of the coalition called A Home For Everyone that brings city and county government together with foundations, business and faith leaders and nonprofits to find solutions.
They’ve gotten off to a good start, with the A Home for Every Veteran initiative. Last year they housed nearly 700 veterans and their families.
“We form partnerships, we set goals, we find the money it takes to reach them, and we hold ourselves accountable,” she said.
Many of those partners were there Friday, including United States Rep. Earl Blumenauer, and state Reps. Kathleen Taylor and Jessica Vega Pederson, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and his wife, Nancy, and City Commissioners Dan Saltzman and Steve Novick. East Multnomah County elected officials also turned out, including Troutdale Mayor Doug Daoust, Fairview Mayor Ted Tosterud, and Wood Village Mayor Patricia Smith.
Moving forward, Kafoury said she hopes to work with private developers to increase the number of affordable apartments with expanded property tax exemptions for companies that set aside 20 percent of new units as affordable. And she would support inclusionary zoning rules to require builders include affordable units in new housing developments.
Scientists say a major earthquake could shake Oregon at some point in our lifetime. But while most of the state is unprepared, Multnomah County has been working to upgrade its infrastructure, Kafoury said.
The Sellwood Bridge was unsafe. It scored a two on a sufficiency scale of one-to-100.
“But for years, replacing it was a recommendation without funding or a plan,” Kafoury said. “As a county commissioner I fought for the project, found the necessary funding and got the project off the ground.”
But our work isn’t done, she said.
“The Burnside Bridge was built 90 years ago," she said. "If we want it to stand for another 100 years, we need to act now."
Last month, the county began a study to determine the most cost-effective way to make sure the bridge withstands a 9-point Cascadia quake.
“These building projects will keep workers and residents safe in the event of a big earthquake,” Kafoury said, “bring new life to the central downtown and Old Town Chinatown, and bring good paying jobs and apprenticeship opportunities in the building trades.”
Can’t do it alone
Kafoury thanked her colleagues on the Board of County Commissioners. She said she couldn’t do this work alone.
Commissioner Jules Bailey has been a steadfast ally in the fight for more housing. He's also championed the county’s investment in the Unity Center, a mental health facility that will open this fall. And he's taken the lead on Ready Levee Columbia to make sure our network of levees along the Columbia are strong.
Commissioner Judy Shiprack has taken up criminal justice reform, leading led the county win a $150,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation to examine disparities in our jails.
“Thanks to Judy’s focus, the county is working to reduce racial and ethnic disparities and divert people who suffer from mental health issues into appropriate health care,” she said.
Commissioner Loretta Smith has led the county to invest millions in Promise Neighborhoods, to give at-risk youth all the services they need to succeed. She has pushed for answers from the Sheriff’s office about racial disparities in the treatment of jail inmates.
"I stand with you, Commissioner Smith, in making sure that change happens."
And Commissioner Diane McKeel has fought for veterans and residents of East Multnomah County. Thanks to her advocacy, Kafoury said the county has better relationships with cities in east county than ever before.
We’re not done
Throughout the budget and across the county we are working to eliminate racial and economic disparities, Kafoury said. Among the strategies is the innovative approaches in SUN schools.
Services and organizations that are rooted in communities of color work with kids to create positive cultural identity, a sense of belonging and relationships that help even our most marginalized kids stay on a path to success.
“This year we are working more closely with those organizations, making sure that our investments in 87 SUN schools align with the communities we serve.”
The county has also expanded its school-based mental health network. Nearly 50 percent of the kids it serves are students of color. The network has also hired a more diverse staff, to give kids a sense of belonging.
The county is also expanding a partnership with the Community Healing Initiative, a program that connects mentors from Latino Network and Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center with kids caught up in gangs.
Kafoury laid out the ways county departments are fighting for kids, workers, and our environment.
Last year, the county raised the minimum wage for its workers to $15, and it established rules for selling and using e-cigarettes, including banning their use by minors. And the state followed suit.
Kafoury said she expects the state to follow Multnomah County too, and impose a tobacco retail licensing system. "The way you need a license in Multnomah County to have a dog, sell a Christmas tree, or run a food cart,” she said.
And if we have to, Kafoury said, we'll do it again to protect the air we breath.
In 2011 Multnomah County called on the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to put rules in place protecting the public from these kind of polluters, but our call was met with inaction. In February, she again called on the state to act. And she said if the state won’t control dangerous industrial emissions, the county would support a regional air authority.
“Whether we’re talking about the county leading on housing issues or, if necessary, air quality,” Kafoury said, “I know where we join together here in Multnomah County, we can drive the entire state to follow.”
City Club members and longtime Portland residents Ted and Leila Falk sat in the back of the room, eating roast beef sandwiches. They hadn’t attended a State of the County speech in a long time, they said, but they came to hear informed city residents question one of their elected leaders.
“The only news I get is from the Oregonian, and it’s filtered in a certain way,” Leila Falk said. “I like to hear what’s going on. One of the reasons I’m here, is I don’t really know how the county is doing.”
For them, the biggest problems are mental health and homelessness. That’s why they’re excited about the Unity Center, an emergency mental health facility opening this fall. But Ted Falk said he would like to see Multnomah County do more to engage neighboring counties.
During the question period, the Falks got an idea of what that might look like. Asked what a regional air quality body might look like, Kafoury said she would work closely with Washington and Clackamas counties to regulate air quality if the state doesn’t control industrial emissions.
“I really believe taking the pressure off the state is not the right thing to do,” Kafoury said. “But if the state won’t act we don’t have any other choice.”
Miss the speech? It’s not too late.
Listen to a rebroadcast of the event on Oregon Public Broadcasting beginning Friday, March 18 at 7 p.m. on 91.5 FM or streaming at opb.org.
Watch a rebroadcast of State of the County on Portland Community Media cable channel 30 Friday at 8 p.m. or Sunday at 6 p.m.
Read the full speech here.