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East County should look at a safety district

As a believer in the power of the community, I think we are offered pivotal opportunities to seek change. Recently those motivations took me to a community dialog hosted by the Coalition for a Livable Future, whose publication The Equity Atlas, takes an uncompromising look at the change occurring around the region. The Atlas maps colorfully illustrate the changes Gresham, Troutdale, Wood Village and Fairview have undergone in the previous 10 years (www.equityatlas.org). Small groups explored solutions that might have broad impacts on regional equity.

The discussion focused on how demographic shifts have increased poverty, criminal activity, gangs, drug use and related law enforcement demands in the East County. Like most of Oregon, local cities are grappling with rising energy and regulatory impacts, unanticipated growth, service costs and inflation. At nearly $4 a gallon, gassing up a police cruiser is no bargain. Sustainable solutions drove the discussion and the idea that East County might form a Public Safety District that could serve both police and fire in all four communities.

A participant seated at another table quickly dismissed the concept with a hotly delivered; 'That's an old idea that is never going to happen!'

Another comment quickly followed, 'Remember they tried that with a Fire District.'

As the project manager for the Greater Gresham Area Prevention Partnership, I have had the privilege of working with police officers, city staff members, officials and citizens from each of these communities. I have a front-row seat watching, supporting and engaging these competent and committed individuals in their ongoing efforts to grapple with drugs and the attendant crime and gang activities. The Four Cities Peer Court project is just one example of their proactive efforts (www.ggapp.org).

I am not surprised to learn that the city of Troutdale, like Fairview and Gresham, plans to forward a public safety levy. Public safety levies are the most common mechanisms to ease strained general fund budgets needed to fight drugs and attendant crime issues. Unfortunately, levies fail and they are only good for a set number of years. Could a public safety district even be implemented if it were shown to be more effective and efficient and more importantly, could it be relevant to these communities and thus ultimately sustainable?

With a high percentage of crimes related to drugs, it seems sensible to look to law enforcement to give citizens answers on how best to combat these issues. Best practices models are inter-agency, multi-disciplinary teams focused on specific crimes. They have the greatest impact with the best use of resources. Working together, targeting specific crimes related to drugs, teams like these could really help East County. One such model currently in use is the highly successful East County Inter Agency Gang Task Force.

The relevance of any idea is only as good as the math. Making time and taking resources to explore the economies of scale could actually result in nothing. Cities may 'cost out' a percentage of their services to their police and fire departments. While 'more than 90 percent' of budgets might go to public safety; a percentage of those costs can be billed back. Such internal services charges help pay for the business side of government. Finding out how to replace that money could make it a tough sell. But the mere possibility that it could lead to the discovery of something better might be worth it for the future.

Ownership would be critical. Could an elected official from Wood Village craft a solution that would work for Gresham and would it matter if it saved money? Based upon my experience, I am at a loss as to how this would allow the reasonable people I know to be held hostage. I am also not convinced that in an emergency, no one cares what the city's name is on the police car.

If an elected volunteer Safety Commission, composed of a defined number of seats (allocated based on population), council member liaisons and citizens, could be responsible and held accountable for budget, infrastructure and operations they might be able to provide efficient services delivery, effectiveness and transparency - hallmarks of sound, fiscally responsible public administration. People might actually vote for it.

Is the idea sustainable? What happens if these levies fail, or if in six years Gresham's levy doesn't get re-funded? The Oregon tax system isn't fixed and Troutdale can no longer afford police? Public trust has been squandered because it's been invested in unsustainable solutions.

We must believe that people can radically transform their behavior or beliefs with the right kind of impetus. Tipping points are a reaffirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action, writes Malcolm Gladwell in 'The Tipping Point.'

I believe that if we really want to keep the community safe, keep youth healthy and drug free, the focus will be on drugs. To reduce crime we must work together. In all of my interactions with the leadership of these cities they believe it too. They are readily capable of the type of intelligent action referenced in 'The Tipping Point,' evidenced most recently in their focused efforts to work with TriMet. I am confident of their potential to lead change.

In The Equity Atlas, we all are asked to think about our future and how we can work together on building sustainable and equitable solutions. I believe this is the tipping point for East County and it's past time to take a look at working together to fully fund police and fire through a Public Safety District.

Cathy Sherick is the Special Projects Director for the Police Activities League.