Schools, debt, forest fires among issues at the forefront in Hillsboro

by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - State Rep. Ben Unger (left) chats with Avamere resident Jim Crook after last weeks public meeting at the assisted living facility on Southest 30th Avenue in Hillsboro. Although the meeting was sponsored by a health care organization, when state Rep. Ben Unger visited Avamere — a senior assisted-living facility — in Hillsboro last week, those who attended were interested in a wide range of topics.

Dale Penn II, government affairs director for the Portland-based Oregon Health Care Association, said his office initiated Unger’s visit after Avamere won an award for its high level of patient services.

“The Oregon Health Care Association was proud that one of our member facilities in Rep. Unger’s district was honored by the American Health Care Association with a ‘Silver Achievement in Quality’ award,” said Penn. “Winners have embraced the core values and concepts of visionary leadership, focus on the future, resident-focused excellence, management by innovation and focus on results and creating value.”

About 20 people were on hand to ask questions the evening of Aug. 27 at the Avamere complex at 2000 S.E. 30th Ave., and many of the seniors who turned out were especially focused on asking Unger about school issues.

Unger, a freshman Democrat from Hillsboro, quickly revealed his passion for the topic.

“I worked hard to convince the county and city to take $10 million in Gain Share money for local schools. That has been a big deal,” Unger said. “There would have been five days cut from the school year if not for that, and we’ve now cut that to just two days.”

Unger noted that area school districts are in a difficult financial position, but he believes the era of cuts may finally be turning in the other direction.

“We’ve been cutting our schools for the last two-and-a-half decades, so it’s exciting to hear some programs are coming back,” he said. “We need to invest more money. Our schools need it. We need more resources to give our kids the education they really deserve.

“We need to connect kids with their passion. Just testing and testing strips all the fun out of learning and creates a cookie-cutter factory for kids.”

Unger pointed out that shortchanging schools was counterproductive for the entire society.

“Good schools are worth an investment. We’ll pay a price for not having good schools,” said Unger. “Those kids who drop out won’t be getting jobs and paying taxes. They’re going to be out spray-painting fences. I want people to move into Hillsboro so their kids can have the best schools. In a lot of ways, we’ve been headed in the wrong direction.”

Unger made clear he doesn’t always agree with the economic priorities set by the state’s political leaders.

“We spent $30 million to bring a wind farm to Shepherd’s Flat (a wind farm in eastern Oregon), but never spend $30 million to help real farmers,” said Unger. “If we throw all our eggs into wind farms and Intel chips, it won’t end well.”

Unger added that he is very conservative when it comes to taking on more debt. However, he pointed out that more budget cuts will not in itself correct the state’s financial issues.

“As we come out of the recession, we’ve cut, cut, cut,” he explained. “All the frivolous stuff has been cut. The only places left to cut now are benefits for seniors and kids and public pensions. But if we want Oregon to be a successful state, we can’t balance the budget on the backs of kids and seniors. We won’t be a strong state if we don’t have strong basic services.”

Threat from China

One old-timer at the event said he was worried about China and Russia building up militarily.

“At the state level, we don’t have a lot of say in federal spending,” Unger responded. “I hope we’re doing what we can about that while taking care of our people back here at home. It’s always a balance.”

Unger added that he believes a more serious issue with China comes in a different arena.

“The biggest threat is from technology and hacking,” he said. “People steal our secrets, and we need to divert more and more resources to protect companies, our government and our technological advantages. We need to continue to be vigilant on that front.”

One woman in the group asked about the serious forest fires in the state, and questioned how all the costs of firefighting efforts were being paid for.

Unger said the state’s Wildfire Protection Act, passed earlier this summer, deals with that. It buys an insurance policy that prevents the state from going further into debt by fighting fires, and there is a new emphasis on preventing fires.

“We are putting more money into prevention because there is not enough firefighting equipment to go around,” said Unger.

Toward the end of the session, Unger said he was struck by the fact that many legislators expected so little in the way of finding solutions to some of the state’s biggest problems — such as school funding, reform of the Public Employees Retirement System or unemployment. Unger said he wants to see lawmakers push harder for significant progress.

“We have big problems and we need to take more chances. We don’t do that enough,” he said. “I wish we would fight it out a little more. We are taking too many baby steps when our challenges demand leaps and bounds.”

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