County Chair outlines his four top priorities to Wilkes neighbors

Most folks haven’t heard much from Ted Wheeler since he took the Multnomah County Chair office in January. You might be surprised to learn what his priorities are …

In one of his first public appearances in outer East Portland, Multnomah County Chair Ted Wheeler talks candidly about his goals – the realities of politics.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Since Multnomah County Chair Ted Wheeler was swept into office by voters last November, we haven’t heard much from him – other than when he shared his mountaineering experiences with the Parkrose Business Association.

But last week, Wheeler accepted Ross Monn’s invitation to speak with community members at the Wilkes Community Association monthly meeting.

“It is a beautiful night,” Wheeler began, “thank you for taking the time to come; it shows you care about the community in which you live.”

Admitting he might not have the answers to all questions raised by those present, Wheeler started by outlining the responsibilities of county government.

Multnomah County 101
Wheeler detailed the wide array of services provided by the county:

  • Public safety, including the Sheriff’s Office, River Patrol and jails;
  • The District Attorney’s Office;
  • Safety net” human Services, operating or administrating energy assistance, federal programs for infants, women and children and antipoverty programs;
  • Treatment services for those who are jailed and released, in addition to alcohol and drug addiction rehabilitation services;
  • Maintaining roads, and 27 bridges – including six bridges that cross the Willamette River;
  • The public library system;
  • Animal services;
  • Conducting elections;
  • Tax collection; and
  • Land use planning services in unincorporated areas of Multnomah County.

Wheeler gives Wilkes Community Association neighbors an overview of his top priorities.

Outlines fourfold priorities
“I’m here mostly to meet you, and hear your concerns,” Wheeler continues. “But first, here are my four top priorities for the county:

1. Public Safety
“First is making the public safety system whole.  I want a balanced public safety system. This is more than opening the Wapato jail; I’m talking about the whole spectrum of public safety services.

“This includes [crime] prevention. By the time we put someone in jail, the system has failed. Intervention and prevention is very important to me. And, we must have law enforcement and prosecutorial accountability.

“Beyond sending people to jail, I want them to come back to the community as fully engaged, productive citizens. Sometimes they need a little help in terms of education, mentors, employers, or pastoral care. We want to make sure the recidivism rate goes down.”

Even though they closed the Sellwood Bridge for a day-long inspection, federal inspectors say they’re only 40% done with the job.

2. Sellwood Bridge
“Ahead of all other county transportation issues is dealing with the Sellwood Bridge. It is at a crisis point. That bridge has a rating of “2” on a federal sufficiency scale of 100.

“Federal agencies are inspecting it. They are requesting another two days to complete the study. We need to completely rehabilitate or replace that span.

“There is an ongoing process among neighborhoods, transportation advocates of all kinds, and designers. While the county has $25 Million committed to the project, we’re trying to get state matching dollars, which can lead to getting federal matching dollars. It will be about two years before construction begins.”

3. Emergency management
“Before I came into office, Multnomah County underwent an independent analysis of our emergency management system. We failed. Our procedures and readiness were wholly inadequate; not up to snuff.

“I’ve doubled the staff in [the emergency management office]. We’ve brought in an expert and funded the office’s improvement. Nobody thinks about emergency management until you need it. New Orleans is a good example of what it looks like when you don’t have a good plan in place. It is going to take a while as we rethink the system.”

4. New downtown courthouse
“We need a new downtown Portland courthouse.

“Our current courthouse, while being a historical building, is dilapidated. It’s a firetrap and a potential earthquake hazard. It is no longer functional, considering the volume of business conducted in the courthouse. Accused criminals and citizens travel the same hallways, making it neither safe nor functional.

“We’ve secured a location to build a modern courthouse on the west end of the Hawthorne Bridge. We’ll move an off-ramp that bisects the property. Being a block away from the Justice Center, we’re working on an agreement to build a tunnel between the two.”

Funding the project, Wheeler said, will most likely be done with a general obligation bond. The current building is open to debate; the chair opined that putting the building back on the tax rolls makes sense.

Questions about Wapato Jail
Asked about the long-awaited East County Justice Center, Wheeler said three sites in Gresham are under consideration, and the final selection will be announced within a month.

Questions regarding public safety, and the Wapato Jail, were posed – including, “Can’t the [state] legislature reassign lottery proceeds?”

Wheeler responded, “I’m working with the state to use some of our [jail bed] capacity as a reentry facility for [inmates] from state facilities. We know 98% of them will come back to Multnomah County. It makes sense to connect [released prisoners] with the community, so they can become productive citizens.

“There isn’t a lot of interest in the legislature, from members around the state, to reassign state funds to help out Multnomah County. Potential grant dollars are available. As a last option, I may go back to the taxpayers to make a case to raise taxes to fund it.”

Chair Wheeler pauses as he listens to citizens express their concern that “group homes” and low-income housing are being concentrated in outer East Portland.

Crime and housing density
A neighbor spoke up, saying “I see two factors contributing to East County crime. One is MAX, the other is high-density, low-income housing that is pushed to the edges of Portland.”

These factors come together in Rockwood, she added. “To me, government is in bed with high-density developers. But developers don’t take responsibility for public safety in the areas they create. It breaks my heart to learn of an elderly lady who sleeps in the back of her house in fear of bullets that have come flying through her home.”

Wheeler responded, “This is complicated. Yes. First, MAX is a well-known issue. TriMet has substantially stepped up their patrols, I think.

“Being worried about being shot makes this elderly lady a victim of crime, even though she hasn’t been hurt. It is a quality-of-life issue. The county does have role to play in this. We haven’t provided the number of jail beds needed. There isn’t accountability. It is a tragedy for the community when people are arrested and released. We just enabled them to go back into the community and commit more crime or continue their addiction. We haven’t been able to have an interdiction.”

Co-chair of the neighboring Russell Neighborhood Association Bonny McKnight spoke up about the growing number of “group homes” in outer NE Portland.

“These ‘group homes’ used be ‘care homes’,” McKnight said, “But [group home operation] is merely a business for many owners. If they started a hair styling salon, they would be under more regulation than group homes. The county licenses [group homes]. But when Lisa Naito came out to talk about the issue, she said, ‘There is nothing we can do. Everyone needs a home’.”

To this, Wheeler responded, “I take legal advice, but at the end of the day, I am responsible for my decisions. If we are charged with the responsibility of licensure, we should be in charge. I came into office with a certain amount of naiveté. Most county government workers are good people who care about others. Sometimes we forget that the regulations don’t run us, we run the regulations.”

When Wheeler’s time was up, he thanked the group of about 30 people, and left with a round of applause.

© 2007 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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