Hundreds of leaders converged on the Monarch Hotel last Wednesday to hear all five Clackamas County commissioners wrangle with local issues — and occasionally wrangle with one another — during the Business in the County Forum.

Co-hosting with the Oregon City Chamber, North Clackamas Chamber Chief Executive Officer David Kelly introduced his board’s chairman and former Happy Valley Mayor Rob Wheeler to moderate the discussion, noting Wheeler had just successfully moderated the Damascus disincorporation debate this month.

“If he can keep those people in check, then he ought to be able to keep our county commissioners in check,” Kelly said.

County commissioners openly sparred over issues during the Oct. 23 forum while promising to keep Clackamas County’s economy a priority. Last year’s election of County Chairman John Ludlow and Commissioner Tootie Smith made the board more conservative, but new political divisions have emerged.

“We are a decidedly pro-business commission,” Ludlow said, “(but) it’s tough aggregating all the opinions and getting it into a decision.”

Commissioner Paul Savas noted that citizen resistance to urban-renewal financing and tax incentives has helped encourage businesses to locate elsewhere.

“Washington County has the ability to make an adjustment when a prospect comes forward,” he said, adding that Clackamas County also should emulate its ability to build and maintain road systems.

Despite historic resistance to tax measures, Ludlow announced that “within the next 30 days” commissioners will consider placing a $15 million annual fee on the May ballot for road maintenance. He and Savas disagreed whether it would be just for maintenance after Savas pointed out critical needs identified in the county’s Transportation System Plan.

Bottom line, Smith said, commissioners will ask voters to “give us a try” for five to seven years of improved road services. Clackamas County is responsible for 1,400 miles of road that are on average decreasing in quality.

“If we wait too long,” said Commissioner Jim Bernard,” we’re going to fall further and further behind.”

Tension also was in the air over renewing American Medical Response’s contract for ambulance services, when just the day before, commissioners decided to delay any authorization for another 30 days. Local AMR General Manager Randy Lauer and staff members attended the event sponsored by competitor MetroWest. Lauer said he appreciated Clackamas County’s due-diligence efforts in understanding contractual complexities before the April deadline.

Metro bogeyman

Commissioners unified when they discussed their common political enemy, the Metro regional government, and especially its continued support for the Columbia River Crossing project.

On behalf of the commission, Ludlow is sending letters bemoaning Clackamas County’s proposed subsidy of the new Interstate 5 bridge when its tolling would increase traffic on Interstate 205. Even commissioners Bernard and Martha Schrader, who have historically been in favor of working with Metro for projects such as light rail, had no kind words for the agency during their remarks.

“This board is committed to letting Metro know, ‘Hey, you forgot Clackamas County,’ ” Schrader said, referring to its limits on development outside of the urban growth boundary.

Bernard called Metro’s latest report on the availability of developable land “somewhat dishonest” because it didn’t include all of the properties that the county has identified outside the urban growth boundary. Ludlow added that “the problem is the lack of flexibility that we have as a sovereign county” and promised that Clackamas County will be asking the Oregon Legislature to pass laws to allow more development in outlying areas.

As for Metro’s promise to re-examine rules, Ludlow said developers “can’t wait five years for the next opportunity. ... We’ve got to take care of ourselves.”

Savas, who is Clackamas County’s representative on Metro’s Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation, expressed frustration about being “on the treadmill” with the agency and called for a “timeout” to see what is working.

Ludlow eventually paid the regional government a compliment, though he acknowledged saying anything nice about the agency was “hard for me being Metro.” He called Metro Councilor Carlotta Collette a “tireless advocate” on behalf of their partnership with the Oregon City-led effort to revitalize the area around Willamette Falls after the loss of hundreds of paper-mill jobs there.

Commissioners mourned that Eclipse Development missed its Oct. 11 deadline to purchase the 23 acres for $4.1 million and hoped that another buyer would come forward. They even talked about purchasing the site themselves for the right price, and Ludlow chastised Bernard for mentioning $1.5 million outside of a closed-door meeting.

News from Clackamas County Tax Assessor Bob Vroman (“Property taxes going up,” Oct. 23) gives commissioners more funds to work with in the upcoming budgeting cycle. While Bernard looked forward to advocating expansion of sheriff and community-corrections services, Savas warned that the county will be “still losing ground on service levels” due to costs of labor.

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