Neighboring counties, different needs
Multnomah County mostly exists to provide social services and affordable housing to low-income residents.
Washington County thinks of itself largely as an economic development agency trying to create good-paying jobs.
And Clackamas County wants to be like Washington County, but needs the region to help it create more employment land.
At least those are among the most apparent takeaways from the three State of the County speeches given by the chairs of each county this year. Such speeches are an annual ritual where the chairs talk about their hopes for their counties in the coming year. They tend to touch on many but not all county government activities, reflecting the priorities of the chairs and, presumably, a majority of their commissioners.
Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury delivered her speech on March 18. She mentioned problems facing low-income Multnomah County residents on practically every page of her prepared text.
A third of county residents dont earn enough to cover their basic needs. And while our unemployment rate continues to fall, the number of
people living in poverty, including those working low-wage jobs, continues to rise, Kafoury said early in her speech.
Among the services Kafoury said the county needs to increase to address these problems are health care, school-based mental health services, culturally specific services to gang-impacted youth, wrap-around family support services, and especially affordable housing.
We need sustainable funding for our short-term and long-term housing needs. Temporary rental assistance to those living on the edge, permanently affordable housing for working families and supportive housing to help the chronically homeless get in out of the cold, Kafoury said.
Washington County Chair Andy Duyck delivered his speech on March 31. Like Kafoury, Duyck said the county needs to provide more social services and affordable housing, noting that more than 10 percent of its residents live in poverty.
However, much of Duycks speech concerned the successful economic development efforts his county has made to help high tech companies such as Intel locate and grow there. They include waiving hundreds millions of dollars in property taxes on production equipment to encourage construction projects.
Employers in Washington County continue to provide some of the most coveted jobs in our state jobs that offer the highest wages, the best benefits, and sustain the health of our entire state, Duyck said early in his speech. Great job opportunities attract a highly-educated, highly-skilled, and diverse work force, and contribute to a vibrant and complete community.
Clackamas County Chair John Ludlow delivered his speech on Feb. 18. Although he also acknowledged the need for more affordable housing, Ludlow put greater emphasis on increasing the supply of commercial, retail and industrial land.
The future prosperity of the county will be built on a foundation of good paying jobs, housing affordability and capital investment. In order to meet that future need, our county needs a 20-year supply of development ready employment land, Ludlow said in his prepared remarks.
Referring to the countys current impasse with Metro over how much land to designate as urban reserves for future development, Ludlow said, Finding the land needed to fill this shortfall and create new long-term growth is challenging when regional land use objectives conflict with ours. But we remain undeterred and continue to advocate for what we believe is best for county residents and businesses.
The chairs even differed when they talked about the same issues, such as infrastructure needs.
Kafoury, Duyck and Ludlow all talked about the need to find more revenue for the transportation systems in their counties.
Kafoury primarily talked about the county-owned bridges over the Willamette River, specifically saying the Burnside Bridge needs work to survive the large Cascadia subduction zone earthquake predicted to strike the region. She did not mention the need to increase capacity on any county-owned roads.
In contrast, Duyck and Ludlow talked about needing to find additional revenue to maintain all of their roads. They also talked about the need to increase the capacity of the transportation systems in their counties to reduce congestion and accommodate population growth. Duyck called on the 2017 Oregon Legislature to pass a new transportation funding package, and Ludlow said he and the rest of his commission are considering local funding options.
Topics that were not mentioned by all three chairs were also significant. For example, Kafoury did not mention any county efforts to create jobs. Just about her only mention of the private sector was the 2016 Oregon Legislatures vote to raise the minimum wage, which she said the county helped inspire by raising the minimum wage for its workers to $15 an hour.
In contrast, job creation was a top priority for Duyck and Ludlow.
At the same time, only Kafoury talked about county efforts to reduce air pollution, citing its response to the recent toxic air scares in southeast and northeast Portland. She also talked about the need to reduce emissions from older diesel engines, and called on the state to do more about both problems.
Duyck did not mention industrial pollution, even though activists have criticized Intels emissions. The only air pollution he talked about a voluntary wood stove change-out program for homeowners the county is helping to fund. And the only environmental issue Ludlow mentioned was the need to increase the capacity of the sewage treatment plants in the county to accommodate growth.
Kafoury praised the countys efforts to regulate e-cigarettes, saying the Oregon Legislature then followed its lead. Duyck and Ludlow did not mention any regulatory initiatives.
Separated by commonalities
In some respects, the differences between the speeches are puzzling because the counties have so much in common. They are adjacent to each other in the northern Willamette Valley and have their populations concentrated in a few cities, which are where the most jobs are located.
But the differences reflect the demographics and histories of each county. For example, Multnomah County has the most low-income residents, with 22 percent receiving food stamps, compared to 11 percent in Washington County and 12 percent in Clackamas County.
Because Portland has such a large presence in Multnomah County, they officially divided up the services they provide over 30 years ago. The City Council and County Commission both passed a document known as Resolution A in 1983. It essentially said the city will provide urban services such as police and the county will provide social services such as health care for low-income residents.
Although the agreement has been breached a few times, it has mostly held up over past three decades, helping to explain why Multnomah County seems like so much more of a social service agency than either Washington and Clackamas counties.
In contrast, Washington County officials have a history of thinking outside the box to get things done. Many services including water, sewer and parks are provided by special districts that cover both cities and unincorporated areas. Voters have even passed ballot measures to increase the funding of the Washington County Sheriffs Office to provide city-level patrols and responses in unicorporated areas such as Aloha and Rock Creek.
Clackamas County historically has been the least developed county, a point of pride for many residents but a challenge for those having to travel long distances for work. The difficulties of creating a significant number of new jobs while maintaining the countys character helps explain many of the challenges it is facing.