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East County deserves voice in social service debate

A nearly 30-year-old agreement that outlines how government services are supposed to be provided in Multnomah County is in need of review - and East County's cities ought to have a voice in whatever decisions are made between the county and the city of Portland.

Unlike its municipal counterparts in East Multnomah County, Portland spends millions every year to fund services that, in theory, it is not be obligated to provide. These are good and noble causes, such as sheltering the homeless, helping disadvantaged youth through the Portland Children's Levy or funding mental-health programs.

These - and many more similar services - are all jobs that someone ought to be doing, but Portland Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade raises a valid question when she asks whether the city's increasingly large role in the social-service arena is either sustainable or in keeping with its mission.

As reported in last week's Portland Tribune, Griffin-Valade's office is preparing an audit that will address some of these issues. We hope this audit also will prompt city officials and their counterparts in Multnomah County government to evaluate whether local jurisdictions are following an agreement that was reached in the 1980s.

Back then, when the cities of Portland and Gresham began swallowing up vast unincorporated areas in mid-Multnomah County, the parties involved came to a formal understanding about their respective roles in serving the public. The county's job going forward was primarily to meet the social and human needs within the community, while the cities were to concentrate on urban services such as sewers, water and police and fire protection.

This agreement - between Portland and the county and embodied in what's known as 'Resolution A' - was the result of purposeful and thoughtful citizen discussions about the best way to deliver critical services. But as the years have passed, the city of Portland has added greatly to its portfolio, expanding - and continuing to expand - into social programs. Meanwhile, as population has increased in East County's cities, they also have experienced a monumental shift in demographics as many of Portland's lower-income residents moved east.

The result has been an imbalance of services. Portland has a high tax rate, locked in by the passage of statewide ballot measures, while Gresham, Troutdale, Fairview and Wood Village have low tax rates and no capacity to delve deeply into social services even if they were so inclined. Any review of Resolution A should include a discussion about how social services can be spread evenly throughout the county - which would require a recommitment to the idea that providing such services is the primary role of the county, not the cities.

Of course, there are political reasons for the city of Portland taking such a large social-service burden away from the county. That city's residents are more willing to approve funding for such items as a Children's Levy, whereas Multnomah County voters who live outside Portland would be much less enthusiastic.

Yet, as we saw in the May election, even Portlanders have their tax limits. That's just one reason it is important for the cities and the county to once again have a highly purposeful discussion about their roles in delivering services.

Nearly 30 years may have passed since Resolution A was adopted, but government resources still are limited and neither the cities nor the county can afford to be all things to all people.