Improving funding for permanent supportive housing and behavioral health, and protecting public health and safety net services, topped the Multnomah County’s legislative priorities that the Board of Commissioners shared with Oregon legislators this week.
Chair Deborah Kafoury welcomed more than a dozen legislators to the County to share the issues they’d be working on when the 2019 Legislative Session convenes Monday, Jan. 14, 2019
“I want to start by thanking you for the strong partnership we’ve had with the Legislature for many years now,’’ Chair Kafoury told a packed breakfast gathering at Donald E. Long Juvenile Detention Center in Portland on Jan. 8. “I’m reminded of it every day when I look out from my office and see the brand new Courthouse rising and I can’t thank you enough for your support.’’
State partnership is integral to the County’s efforts to bring stability to people and communities in need, she said.
“We can’t do this work without you,’’ Chair Kafoury said. “Your constituents are our constituents and ours are yours.’’
Eighteen legislative districts touch Multnomah County and the elected representatives who also shared their agendas with the Board included Sens. Michael Dembrow, Laurie Monnes Anderson, Shemia Fagan and Kathleen Taylor and Reps. House Speaker Tina Kotek, Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, Janelle Bynum, Alissa Keny-Guyer, Rob Nosse, Carla Piluso, Jeff Reardon, Tawna Sanchez, Sheri Schouten and Barbara Smith Warner.
Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, who has formed a task force to bring universal preschool to Multnomah County, stressed the importance of funding education.
“People understand quality education can change people’s lives and change the trajectory of children’s lives,’’ she said. “I would appreciate your investment.’’
She also addressed the need to reduce diesel pollution. Multnomah County has some of the highest levels of the cancer-causing emissions in the country. In September, the County Board of Commissioners and Portland City Council passed measures to reduce dirty diesel equipment on new public construction sites. Vega Pederson is promoting using some of the Volkswagen settlement funds to help businesses with diesel retrofits and is inviting the Oregon Department of Transportation to come in alongside the County and the city of Portland in the work.
Commissioner Sharon Meieran, who is also an emergency room doctor, asked for support in helping people in a behavioral health crisis from ending up in hospital emergency departments or in the state hospital “the most expensive place in our entire system."
“It costs $1,200 plus per night to receive care at the state hospital, over double what it does at an emergency department and many times the cost of staying in a jail -- which is already too expensive,’’ she said. “We need to catch people before they fall into crisis.’’
Dr. Meieran also highlighted the need to address the pay and benefit issues in behavioral health, describing the workforce as “some of the most overworked, underpaid and under benefited people doing the hardest work in our state.”
“We are not going to get the outcomes and we are not going to improve lives if we are not taking care of our workforce and providing the jobs people need to live,’’ Commissioner Meieran said.
Finally, she stressed the need to bring the reimbursement rates for substance use disorder on par with mental health reimbursements, which are already lower than physical health reimbursements.
Legislators also heard from Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, sworn in five days earlier to represent North and Northeast Portland. She addressed one of the broadest, and most persistent problems, in Oregon: the nearly 30-year-old revenue structure that funds services through the state’s complex property tax system.
Ballot measures from the 1990s created caps, restrictions and outcomes that result in funding gaps and disparities, so that people who own similar properties, for instance, pay different amounts of property taxes. Commissioner Jayapal said the County would be bringing forward some simple technical tweaks, “and we look forward to supporting a broader approach to this really fundamental issue.’’
The Board member representing East County, Commissioner Lori Stegmann, said she would be working with legislators on the disparities that make Multnomah County neighborhoods east of 82nd Avenue among the poorest. One upcoming effort will be to assure the success of the 2020 Census, as census data drives so much funding, and can greatly affect the amount available to a region if every single person is not counted. Commissioner Stegmann is leading the County’s efforts to make the federal Census accurate and successful locally.
She also said she would be working to further identify, and reduce, the barriers that keep people leaving the criminal justice system from finding jobs and housing, thus keeping them on the streets.
“I am excited to be figuring out how we can work together,’’ she told legislators.
You can read the County’s complete 2019 Legislative Agenda here. Here are some other images from the event.