From responding to the COVID-19 pandemic to working on major road projects and trying to address the county’s growing rate of homelessness, county officials and staff were kept busy throughout 2021.
What were the county’s biggest accomplishments, projects and challenges last year? We asked the county councilors to share their thoughts.
Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic consumed much of the county’s resources, money and time. Officials were tasked with allocating nearly $95 million in American Rescue Plan Act money.
“Our Department of Community Services has been working nonstop since the pandemic began to coordinate service and support, including multiple millions of dollars of rent relief, small- business support and other aid. They have been tireless in their work, far outperformed the state average for getting funds out the door and served our community remarkably well,” said Councilor Temple Lentz.
“Using ARPA money, we were able to boost rent assistance, and also had a great partnership with Clark PUD to help those in need pay their utility bills.”
According to data from County Manager Kathleen Otto, Clark County distributed $28.7 million in financial assistance to 3,429 households in 2021. The funds paid for 32,123 months of rent and utility assistance.
“We did among the very best among all counties in the United States on getting rental assistance out. We prevented, in great measure, homelessness,” Councilor Gary Medvigy said.
Lentz said many other departments responded quickly to the changing needs created by the pandemic, especially in distributing ARPA funds to support courts, help address the backlog of cases and make courtroom interactions safer.
But it was Public Health’s efforts that earned the most praise from Lentz.
“Clark County Public Health has continued, for nearly two years without a break, to deliver crucial information to our community, to work with medical providers, schools, businesses and government agencies to inform, educate, test, trace and vaccinate,” she said. “And they have done this in an increasingly difficult climate when many people, including some public officials, make false statements that increase confusion and put our community at risk. I am proud of the dedication and high-quality work of the department.”
Lentz also said the “tenor and tone” of some Board of Health meetings and sometimes lack of support from the board, which consists of the county council, have made it more difficult for Public Health to do its work.
Although changes to building and planning codes are often limited by state statute, improving the county’s permitting process has been a particular concern for the council. Those efforts paid off in 2021, said Councilor Karen Bowerman.
“I think about the state of the permitting process when I came aboard a year ago,” Bowerman said. “Frankly, it was slow, and I brought with me feedback from builders to residents on the need to speed up the process. That has happened quickly thanks to the new manager hired in February who brought next-day appointments, answer in-person on all calls (versus voice mail), and one day a week dedicated to constituents who just request assistance in getting the permit process underway. Clark County is a good place to build!”
Bowerman said that feedback has been positive from both builders and residents.
“I and the other councilors have really been pushing for reform. No. 1 is permitting. We had the worst reputation among all the cities and entities in the area,” Medvigy said. “The county manager replaced all of the key positions, and we’ve published data on reduced processing times that were immediate. They’ve made great progress.”
Given December’s unusually cold and wet weather, helping the county’s growing homeless population was especially important to the county councilors. While some progress has been made, they said it’s clear there’s still much work to be done.
“Where we’re slipping … is our unhoused population is growing,” Medvigy said. “It grew 25 percent in one year. We had all these diffuse enablers, really great organizations helping the homeless by enabling them, making their day a little more comfortable. In the long term, it’s not helping anybody.”
Medvigy noted that data from the county’s various shelters shows widely diverse rates of success and failure.
“One of them, last quarter, … about 17 percent of the people they sheltered did not return to homelessness. Another way to say that is 83 percent did return to the street,” he said.
Although the county allocated around $15 million for homelessness programs, with $5 million of that going to shelters, more needs to be done for behavioral health, Medvigy said. He noted that two years ago, the county had only three outreach workers, who worked only Monday through Friday during business hours. Now mobile teams are being rolled out thanks, in part, to the ARPA funds. However, Medvigy said he would like to see more facilities built to offer crisis-stabilization services.
“I fully support decentralization of mental health treatment and would like to see Clark County lead the effort,” he said. “I faced this all the time (in his former career) as a judge and prosecuting attorney. We need providers that can treat both mental health and addiction, and there’s a scarcity of them.”
“The county has been doing a lot of work and having conversations with people in the community around behavioral health and how we can support those services,” Lentz said. “Also, the interactions between behavioral health and law enforcement and how we can help support law enforcement and support behavioral health for people in crisis and make that interaction point between people in crisis and law enforcement more positive and less potentially harmful. I’m looking forward to seeing where those conversations go.”
Lentz noted that it’s not always about the council taking action, but instead getting those important conversations started.
Not all of the county’s work in 2021 got good reviews from the council. Road work continues to be a problem for some council members. With major projects like the Northeast 179th Street and Highway 500/Northeast 182nd Avenue improvements needing a large chunk of the county’s resources, those living in rural areas will see less money and fewer crews available for their roads.
Lentz said she knows that residents in rural areas have roads that need to be addressed, but there are only so many projects Public Works can do in a year, adding that it’s difficult to move projects up in the county six-year road plan.
“Everyone wishes there was more money to fix more roads. Clark County has historically underfunded its government,” Lentz said. “When we don’t take the 1 percent increase in the road fund levy rate, that’s millions of dollars that won’t be generated for rural road projects.”
While she doesn’t love paying those taxes every year, Lentz said she understands where tax dollars go and the importance of them.
“I voted against the 179th Street project because I was concerned about using up so much of available resources that could be used elsewhere and I didn’t believe the benefit was greater than the costs, which ended up being higher than expected,” Lentz added.
Councilors praised county staff, executive leadership and County Manager Otto.
“Our county manager, our department heads and our staff have kept this county running smoothly during an incredibly difficult time, and I am deeply grateful for their commitment,” said Lentz. “Kathleen Otto has done remarkable work in doing what she can to help let staff know their hard work is appreciated and it does matter.”
“Kathleen has been great,” Medvigy added. “I just cannot believe all the things she’s doing. She needs more than one of her, and she needs very strong director heads.”
There’s one subject all council members seem to agree on: the need for a third bridge over the Columbia River to connect Clark County to Oregon. As the Interstate 5 bridge-replacement project continues to gather momentum, the county council is already looking ahead to a third — and maybe even a fourth —travel corridor.
In December, the council passed a resolution in support of a third bridge crossing over the Columbia River. The resolution asks all stakeholders to join the county in planning for an additional bridge.
Bowerman said the resolution wasn’t intended to take away from the current safety/seismic work being done for the Interstate 5 bridge-replacement project, but to go beyond to address issues of traffic congestion.
“By highlighting the importance of this topic now, our transportation plan and regional transportation plans will be affected so that construction work being done now complements future development of the new corridor,” Bowerman said. “Without planning, everything from misplaced new roads to misplaced new homes would face uncertainty as the new corridor took shape; we cannot afford uncertainty given the many years involved in transportation planning.”
Getting a third bridge across the river will take millions of dollars and support from both sides of the river, Medvigy noted.
“This is not a Clark County-only issue,” Medvigy said. “We cannot fix this, and we can’t own it. Quite frankly, I don’t know that we have a partner south of the river that feels a third corridor is necessary. As long as that exists, we will never make progress, and the county is already 20 years behind in the planning process.”