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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

After tense exchange, Clark County Council reconsiders money for Vancouver homeless shelter

Councilors said they won’t require the request to go through a lengthy committee process

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: May 30, 2024, 5:44pm

After a tense exchange with Vancouver officials Wednesday, the Clark County Council rescinded last week’s decision to reject the city’s request for quick help paying for a 150-bed homeless shelter.

County councilors said they won’t require the request to go through a lengthy committee process after all, but they also aren’t ready to write a check just yet.

“Moving this forward … is incredibly important. We have people dying on the sidewalks in our city, outside this building, every three to five days. Getting them to shelter is absolutely imperative,” Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said at the meeting.

The homeless shelter (referred to as a bridge shelter by officials) is part of the city of Vancouver’s plan to address homelessness since declaring a civil emergency in November. In addition to sheltering people living on the streets, it will give homeless people a safe place to stay after leaving the hospital or jail.

“Are we giving them a tent or are we giving them a program with wraparound services so we can move them through that path to being housed?” McEnerny-Ogle asked the Clark County Council. “And I think the county council needs to make that decision. We can work with you, but are you serious about working on this issue?”

Last week, Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes asked the county to commit money from the county’s mental health sales tax, forgoing the county’s usual, more lengthy process so the city can secure a property it’s eyeing before the opportunity slips away.

Acquiring and building the shelter will cost about $16 million. Operating it will take another $6 million to $7 million per year. The city wants the county to pay for 30 percent of those combined costs — a maximum of $6 million upfront and about $2 million a year after that.

The Clark County Council voted last week to make the city go through the same process, although accelerated, as other projects requesting the funds.

A heated discussion

On Wednesday, city staff presented more details on the shelter to the county council, consistent with that process. County councilors said they didn’t want to agree to fund the shelter without knowing where it would be located.

In the past, the Vancouver City Council has heard many complaints from neighbors of its transitional homeless shelter communities called Safe Stays.

“I’ve been told by some city constituents that there’s limitations on public comments, and they also feel that there’s a lack of transparency. … When they’ve asked about where the location of the shelter is, and they can’t get a straight answer out of the city themselves,” County Councilor Michelle Belkot said.

McEnerny-Ogle said the city could reveal the location to the county councilors in an executive session behind closed doors. (Washington’s laws requiring that governments conduct business in the open include an exemption for discussing real-estate transactions.)

Clark County Council Chair Gary Medvigy pointed out city staff refused an executive session previously.

“They probably did because they don’t have the confidence that even if we go through this process, you will move forward. … Is there confidence in the county that this is something that you are interested in moving forward with?” McEnerny-Ogle asked.

Medvigy said the county does want to proceed with the shelter.

“We’re not trying to slow roll you. We’re trying to find a way to move this forward with some basic details,” he said. “And we weren’t involved in your emergency declaration. That was like top secret. It was all just thrust upon us.”

County Manager Kathleen Otto said the county made the decision to make the city go through the normal process with good intentions so that councilors can make an informed decision.

“I think, moving forward with anything that we do, in order to actually … build the relationship between the county and the city, the first part we need to do is start assuming positive intentions,” Otto said. “We can’t keep living in the past because this is an important issue, but they need to be informed in order to make that decision.”

Once the county council emerged from executive session, it voted unanimously to rescind its original motion to make the city go through the usual process for mental health sales tax funding.

However, it requested staff to come up with a six-year forecast of the mental health sales tax, including ongoing commitments, for a clearer idea of how much money might be available before possibly committing funds.

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.