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State of the county, as seen by Judge Cooper

A guest editorial, requested by the Central Oregonian takes a long look at the 'state of the county' ....
The following report was drafted at the request of the editors of the Central Oregonian.

   For many years, the City of Prineville has begun the year with a "state of the city report" to citizens and taxpayers. This annual event has provided the city mayor with an opportunity to share with residents living inside the city limits the accomplishments of the previous year and the city administration's plans for the year ahead.
   Citizens living outside the city limits have not received a similar report. This year, Crook County is grateful for the opportunity to remedy that and to present with the help of the Central Oregonian a similar state of the county report.
   As 2002 opens, the county finds itself flooded with data, just now being released by the U.S. census bureau about who we are, how old we are, what color our skin is, where we live and how much we make. The decennial report shows generally favorable trends.
   The census reports 19,182 people living in Crook County, up 36 percent from a decade earlier. Counter to common wisdom, the census indicates that Crook County is not a retirement mecca as some have suggested. While 14.7 percent of residents are over 65, nearly one-third-30 percent-are under 21. Most residents continue to report their ethnicity as "white" but we are not immune from the national trend toward a multiracial community, with 5.6 percent of residents claiming some other race.
   Crook County is a family place, where people like to put down roots, the census reports. Families accounted for 73.8 percent of households in the county, while 61.5 percent of households included married couples. Only 9.5 percent of households consisted of a householder older than 65 living alone. Nearly 75 percent of the residences in the county are owner-occupied--a strong indicator of a well developed sense of "belonging" that bodes well for the civic involvement.
   Other data not yet released but expected between now and May include income statistics, educational statistics, data on commuting patterns and percentage of residents who are native-born Oregonians. There is no reason to think at this juncture that this data will show anything but improvement over 1990 patterns.
   With such numbers, the Crook County government is in a better position to plan for the future - plan for orderly growth, plan for job creation, plan for better transportation, plan for more and better services to citizens and plan for additional amenities such as recreation, shopping and cultural and educational opportunities.
   Such plans (and implementation of plans) have occupied a great deal of the county government's time in the recent year. Among the achievements in 2001 are the following:
   * Recognizing the desire of Crook County citizens to keep criminals behind bars, the county successfully negotiated additional bed rentals in the newly opened Jefferson County Jail. This combination of Crook County jail beds, Jefferson County jail beds and Deschutes County jail beds means law enforcement and the courts have nearly 50 available beds, including beds for women, which were not previously available, which can be used to detain prisoners who might otherwise be released back to the community to commit more crimes. The bed-rental arrangement also provides the county with some much-needed breathing space in these difficult economic times to consider further how best to replace the aging county jail.
   * Sadly, the need for an expanded number of adult jail beds has also been accompanied by an increased demand for juvenile jail beds. The county court doubled the budget for juvenile incarceration, this providing more than adequate funds to remove young mischief-makers from the community as necessary.
   * A change in the management structure at the county landfill settled an on-going dispute with the state department of environmental quality and enhanced services to county residents. A newly installed dual-scale, computerized accounting system and improved roads decreased wait times for citizens and increased fiscal accountability. A new electronic gate improved the county's ability to monitor incoming and outgoing traffic, improved security and increased revenues by providing better monitoring of before- and after-hours use of the facility. The county also invested in a new site on Millican Road which will provide dirt for landfill activities and may some day provide a site for a new regional landfill.
   4 Also topping the list of improved county services is the expanded hours now available at the library. Late in the year the county implemented Sunday hours which have proven popular with many users. Crook County is one of the few libraries east of the Cascades which offers this service to citizens.
   Also of note at the library was the addition of $16,000 to the library book budget allocated to the purchase of books and materials for children.
   ú The library was one of several county facilities which received substantial attention this year. The county spent over $71,000 to repair the library's HVAC system to provide adequate heating and cooling for staff and patrons alike. In the coming year, the county will now seek to recover some or all of that money from responsible parties engaged in the design and construction of the facility. On other fronts, the county spent over $100,000 enhancing electrical and plumbing systems at the county fairgrounds, ensuring the safety of patrons of that facility.
   ú In any discussion of facilities, work on the courthouse itself should not be omitted. The re-ignition of the eternal flame in the front of the building on Memorial Day was a memorable moment, and the grounds of the courthouse drew applause throughout the year, thanks to the commendable work of local garden clubs in the summer and at Christmas.
   ú For a short time this summer, the courthouse was able to contribute to the local tourist economy when the Bowman Museum and the county clerk's office teamed up to provide tours of the building from Memorial Day through Labor day. Nearly 600 people-locals and visitors from outside the area alike, walked the 119 steps from the front sidewalk to the clock tower, learning about the county's fascinating history along the way.
   ú But while the visitors were nice, tourists were far from the greatest of the county's concerns this past summer. An exceptionally dry summer led the county to begin worrying early about the potential for serious drought and possible fire hazards. As a result, Crook County sought and received from Gov. Kitzhaber a drought disaster declaration, opening opportunities for financing of certain agricultural losses. Additionally, the county implemented a plan to prevent fire on unprotected private lands in the event of disaster-the only county in the state to have such a plan in place.
   ú In another "first," the county was the first in the region to adopt an innovative "transfer development credits" program. This program allows property owners transfer home-building rights from a sparsely populated area of the county to a more densely developed area, thus reducing and concentrating population growth outside city limits and designated rural subdivisions.
   ú In another significant property move, the county organized its first sale of tax-foreclosed properties in 8 years, significantly reducing the county's property inventory, raising revenue and moving substantial acreage back on to the tax rolls.
   Other significant activities last year included: adoption of a compliance program and hiring of a county compliance officer to pursue code enforcement and nuisance abatement; development of a county acquisitions and purchasing policy in compliance with state law; creation of a new appointments process which allows full participation by all interested county citizens; implementation of a restaurant inspection reporting system; recognition by the state of the county as "most improved" in the Oregon in child well-being statistics; successful lobbying for state funding for enhancements to the transportation and telecommunication infrastructure; successfully lobbying for the retention of Ochoco National Forest headquarters in Prineville; successfully lobbying for the inclusion of all of Crook County in a single legislative district; sponsorship of a successful application for funding to build a new fire substation in Juniper Canyon; creation of an economic and community diversification committee; hiring of a full-time human resources director and adoption of a personnel manual; and substantial upgrade of the county's computer capabilities.
   All of these achievements were accomplished with the cooperation of a remarkably committed county staff; dedicated elected officials; the cooperation of the city of Prineville; the helpful attitude of several state agencies; particularly the governor's Community Solutions Team; the assistance of Sen. Wyden, Rep. Walden and Sen. Smith; the Chamber of Commerce; and the many, many citizens who serve county boards and committees, forsaking their families and giving of themselves without compensation for the betterment of their communities. Without them, none of this would have been possible.
   But while the list looks impressive, it is only a beginning. In 2002, the county faces an equally daunting list of challenges which remain to be addressed.
   At the top of that list is putting Crook County back to work again. The loss of the county's last sawmill was a great blow to the community. Whispers of the possibility of resurrection are encouraging, but county leaders know that this, too, may be only a temporary solution, dependent on the overall economic climate and the whim of governments, both at home and abroad. Likewise, the continued growth and economic stability of the Les Schwab Tire Co. is a godsend to Prineville's economy. But if the 1980s taught us anything, it is that overdependence on a single industry is devastating when larger state and national forces cause that industry's presence to decline. It is imperative in the year ahead that the county, city and business community continue cooperative efforts with federal and state partners to attract new types of industry to Crook County to diversify the economic base and to secure the community's future. This is and must be the top priority of each elected official in county government.
   Right below the need for economic diversification is the need for improvement to county infrastructure to attract that industry. Of particular concern is the inadequacy of the county's transportation. The county will focus heavily in 2002 in securing commitments from the state to improve capacity and mobility of highway 126 between Redmond and Prineville and improve other state highways, such as Madras Highway, Crooked River Highway, O'Neil Highway and Powell Butte Highway. We will also renew our push for construction of the Millican Road linking highways 126 and 20. It is not lost on us that the economic success of Bend and Redmond were largely built on their proximity to highway 97 and the significant statewide investment made in the transportation systems of those communities. It is not acceptable to county leadership that our neighbors should prosper while we decline.
   It is not our intent, however, to seek growth for growth's sake or to grow without adequate attention to protecting and preserving what is special about Prineville and Crook County. To that end, the county will begin the arduous process of rewriting its comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance. As part of this effort, we will necessarily revisit the county's transportation system plan, implement a destination resort-siting ordinance, reopen discussions surrounding appropriate levels of development in the Powell Butte area and participate actively in federal processes involving the future of federal lands within the counties borders. These efforts will best the citizens of Crook County to the extent that citizens stay abreast of them and participate actively in them.
   Finally, in the light of serious state budget cuts which threaten our community's most vulnerable citizens, the county will work to ensure that a local safety net is in place to protect its citizens. We will lobby for the siting of a Federal Quality Healthcare Center in Crook County to serve the medical, dental and mental health needs of indigent citizens. We will continue to seek federal funding to build a Family Resource Center to provide one-stop shopping for health, mental health and services to children and families. Finally, we will work with local schools to provide appropriate sites for new schools, to provide in-school health services and to offer intervention and prevention services for troubled youth and families.
   In 2002, we face significant but attainable challenge. Fortunately, we are a community blessed with common sense, ingenuity, practicality, strong self-identity and a willingness to work together to achieve our agreed-upon goals. These are great assets and they provide us with a solid foundation upon which we are building a great future for Crook County.