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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

State of the County: Clark County Council chair Bowerman’s address covers public health, jail, budget, homelessness

By Shari Phiel, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 4, 2023, 6:24pm

Clark County Council Chair Karen Bowerman’s State of the County address went live Tuesday morning on the county’s website.

In the roughly 22-minute address, Bowerman covered a wide range of subjects, including efforts to address homelessness, the budget, the county jail, the sheriff’s office and public health.

The council chair noted while it has been three years since the first COVID-19 case was diagnosed in Clark County, Public Health is continuing to monitor transmission rates, hospitalizations and hospital capacity. She also thanked health care workers for their efforts during the pandemic.

Public Health is evaluating its response to the COVID-19 pandemic to “identify successful strategies and opportunities for improvement,” Bowerman said. She added the information would be used to develop a plan to improve the agency’s preparedness and response.

In addition, Public Health and the county’s community partners are working on a health assessment, which will be used to develop a five-year community health improvement plan in 2024, Bowerman said. The plan will identify health-related priorities for county residents and develop strategies for meeting those priorities.

Bowerman also discussed the county’s response to the ongoing homelessness crisis. The county has coordinated with all homeless outreach teams operating in the community, she said, and is actively working to address the impact homelessness is having here.

“The council increased expenditures on homeless programs from approximately $10 million to $14 million, including dedicating significant American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, known as ARPA, funds,” Bowerman said.

The county received nearly $95 million in federal ARPA pandemic relief funds.

Bowerman said spending priorities included increasing homeless outreach, increasing shelter bed capacity in the community, improving program performance, and sustaining permanent, supportive housing efforts.

The increased spending resulted in increased emergency shelter bed capacity of 100 beds with the opening of Bertha’s Place and Bertha’s Too.

“The number of seniors age 62 or over sheltered increased by 157 percent,” Bowerman said. Veteran homelessness decreased by 40 percent when compared with numbers prior to the pandemic, she said, while unsheltered veteran numbers decreased by 27 percent.

The county also provided more than $55 million in rent and utility assistance to more than 6,700 households through state and federal pandemic relief funds, she said.

However, Bowerman said there is still much more to be done, and the county is continuing to work to develop solutions. She said there are two areas, in particular, needing to be addressed: that communities of color experience homelessness at higher rates and homeless rates continue to climb despite the increased spending.

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“All funds spent must be evaluated in terms of results achieved,” she said.

Other programs, services and projects benefiting from the nearly $95 million in ARPA funds the county received include a new North Country EMS facility, broadband expansion, community grants, improvements for both District and Superior courts, and property tax financial assistance.

One of the most significant changes for the county government, Bowerman said, was the creation of the Jail Services department. The council approved creation of the new department to oversee management of the county jail in September.

“Jail Services is a countywide service, and this transition will allow additional resources to be allocated to the jail, such as mental and behavioral health support and substance abuse,” Bowerman said.

She said the move also allows the sheriff’s office to focus specifically on law enforcement. Bowerman said the department’s leadership is working with the sheriff’s office, guilds and cities to ensure “a thoughtful and smooth process.”

Looking forward for the remainder of work to be done in 2023, Bowerman said the county has begun the important process of updating the comprehensive growth plan, which must be submitted to the state by June 30, 2025.

“The plan has many elements to help guide long-range policies regarding how growth and development will occur in our community,” Bowerman said. “One of our first steps in updating the plan is adopting the 20-year population projection.”

Staff are creating a public engagement plan that will include public hearings and outreach efforts, she said.

The county is also developing its first multiyear capital plan, which includes identifying capital needs, estimating costs, potential revenue sources and prioritization. Bowerman said the multiyear capital plan is essential to developing and implementing a formal long-range capital master plan and a three- to five-year capital improvement plan.

Because the capital plan was in process when the 2023 budget was being finalized in December, many capital requests were deferred to a special supplemental budget to be reviewed this spring.

To watch the full address, go to https://clark.wa.gov/councilors or watch at cvtv.org, or go to www.columbian.com.