State of the County Address January 2018. by Pat Farr

Following is the full text of the State of the County Address I delivered in Harris Hall on January 8 2018.  Thank you to the Shasta Middle School Jazz Band directed by Mike Reetz for the interlude and musical numbers.

 

2017 has been a year of stabilization and progress for Lane County.

But 2017 has also been a year of challenges for the county. 

Facing the largest housing crisis, perhaps ever in the history of Oregon and Lane County, counties and cities throughout this state have struggled to find adequate numbers of decent places for men and women and families to live, leaving many suffering from grossly inadequate living conditions or for the first time in their lives living in homelessness.

Throughout the nation certain factions who have long been silent either through fear of being exposed for their views or through simple cowardice found themselves emboldened to openly in our streets and buildings threaten underrepresented populations, people of color or people who had felt safe with their gender identity or sexual orientation.  Threats of violence, retribution, oppression and suppression have become tragically more common than any time in recent history.

The physical and mental health of our county and people living here have been severely challenged by inadequate resources, facilities or planning and by illness and diseases that have shortened lives and drastically changed living conditions for the people suffering from preventable or chronic disorders.

Safety in our communities and on our roads and highways, always at the top of our list of concerns, has been challenged by increasing crime and the highest highway death toll of any of Oregon’s 36 counties.

Natural disasters ranging from historically devastating ice storms that paralyzed parts of the county and a long, dry fire season that found Oregonians and Lane County residents with no respite from mind-boggling smoke incursion.

Along with the other timber-producing counties in Oregon, Lane County has seen its federal revenue from timber harvest reduced to a trickle of its promised, former stream that raised the specter of reduced services, layoffs and closing facilities.  Lane County’s budget had become a bleeding wound that threatened even the basic services a county is required to deliver.

But despite the challenges that we encountered during 2017, this has been a year of stabilization and progress for Lane County. We have celebrated the beginning of new efforts to improve the health and safety of our communities across Lane County. And we continue to work hard to protect the financial stability we have achieved through careful planning.

The heart of stability and progress for any organization is its abiity to develop, communicate and execute a strategic plan that defines goals and tactics that every member of the organization understands and more importantly understands his or her role in the success of the plan.

Lane County is completing its third year of a three-year plan that aggressively aimed high with its goals and strategies.  Lane County’s dynamic plan has been bolstered by tactics at the department and team levels that have driven us to new levels of organization, production and accountability.

Our strategic plan has three goal areas: A safe and healthy county; vibrant communities and infrastructure.  Implementing the strategies under these three goal areas while working with an ever-more challenging budget has required controlling internal costs while structurally balancing revenue and expenses.  During my first four years as commissioner and during the decade prior to that the county struggled with layoffs, service cuts continuing decimation of needed reserves.

For the first time in seven years, this fiscal year has seen the county balance its General Fund and Road Fund without using reserves and without laying off valuable, talented staff or reducing services to residents.

We continue to control internal costs by implementing financial strategies such as refinancing old and ongoing debt and saving taxpayers over three million dollars.  Through self-insurance and reduction of administrative overhead our health insurance rates saw zero growth for the third consecutive year.  I challenge you to find another government body, nonprofit or private industry that can report that.

These and other such efforts produce cost savings that allow us to place more resources into direct services that people expect.  As a result of this exemplary financial stewardship, Moody’s Financial Services has upgraded Lane County’s credit rating to the highest level it has ever been—Aa2.

Lane County government was recognized this year by the Portland Business Journal as the third heathiest large employer in Oregon.  No other government agency in Oregon placed within the top 5 in any category.

Four years ago, during my previous term as board chair, we hired a new administrator, Steve Mokrohisky.  When he called me to accept the job, I was literally standing on the tarmac adjacent to an airport runway.  He accepted the job and the challenges of it and moved his family to Lane County.

During our first meeting together we talked at length about strategic planning and how essential a strong plan would be to meet the seemingly crippling challenges ahead.  Today, as we complete the final half-year of our first strategic plan we are embarking on our next three-year plan that will build on the successes and use our momentum and our solid staff to continue to make Lane County the best place to live.

I will cover the work of our three goal areas, the work that helped us to address the challenges that we encountered this past year in ways that would not have been possible five years ago.

A safe and healthy county.

Lane County has a Poverty and Homelessness Board that is unequalled in any Oregon County.  The PHB is comprised of elected officials, service providers, law enforcement, private industry and served individuals.

While the board has been successful in a broad spectrum of areas, I will talk about the work of one single subcommittee.  In 2015, the committee that is now the Shelter and Supportive Housing Committee formulated and executed Operation 365, housing homeless veterans.  The work plan housed 404 homeless veterans during that year, culminating in an invitation to a White House celebration in late 2016.  Through 2017, programs implemented through the plan have housed over four hundred more veterans.

The next challenge of the Shelter and Supportive Housing Committee is to enhance all levels of housing and shelter in our community.  Our winter emergency housing strategies, in its second year, is delivering overnight shelter, every night through this winter for hundreds of men, women and children.

Our current goal is called Operation 600:  planning and siting 600 supportive housing units by 2021.  Units that will house vulnerable individuals who are suffering from behavioral health disorders and active substance use.  It’s a lofty goal, but we are on our way.  When my former comrade-in-arms Major Tom Egan froze to death on our city streets it raised a hue-and-cry to make sure others were not suffering that same fate.  Adding safe, supported residential facilities, wet bed housing, we can help ensure that our most vulnerable neighbors will not suffer Tom Egan’s fate.

And we are on our way. Recently, e celebrated the opening of the Oaks at 14th, a facility that we were proud to partner with Sponsors, HACSA and others on. The Oaks at 14th provides affordable, permanent housing for individuals with criminal histories, including veterans, seniors, and people with disabilities.

Additionally, we have embarked on a frequent user system engagement plan, FUSE, that identifies the most frequent users of emergency services and provides them with immediate targeted help, including residential and medical.  The first year of the plan has produced incredible results and has garnered support for the ongoing program.

Our first county-operated supportive housing unit, on county property at MLK Boulevard, is in the planning stages and will ultimately house with wrap-around care, 50 individuals in safe and healing residence.

We adopted Lane County’s first-ever transportation safety action plan which is designed to help reduce the high number of fatalities on Lane County road through education, engineering and enforcement.

The removal of tobacco from our 70 County-operated parks, the increase in the tobacco purchase and consumption age to 21 years old, and the approval of a policy that will make County-owned properties tobacco-free.

In May of 2017 we sought to renew our Public Safety Levy for an additional five years.  We had received another successful audit of the use of levy funds in January of 2017 and anticipate a fourth audit later this month showing that we are keeping our promises to voters.  By actually reducing the amount levied by over 30% we garnered the trust of taxpayers during the first levy and they approved the renewal with a 72% yes vote.

The levy has ensured greater funding for youth services, added mental health specialists to jail staff and is a cornerstone of the Sheriff’s Department partnering with Lane County Behavioral Health to help first responders provide assistance needed in the best and safest way to our community members with mental illness.

In 2017, the Board adopted five Community Health Improvement Plan priorities for Lane County. The priorities were developed after vigorous community outreach and work with our partners. They are focused on economic development, housing and rural care, which we know are a foundation to a safe and healthy county.

Vibrant Communities

I am committed and all of Lane County Government is committed to ensuring that our county and our cities are a safe, nurturing and welcoming place to live.  We will not tolerate inequities waged on our the people who live with us and beside us in our community.  In 2017, our newly formed Equity and Access Advisory Board began meeting. This is a group of community members committed to helping Lane County place equity at the heart of its decisions – both internally and in our communities. Members have already helped to craft provisions regarding foreign citizenship that were adopted into Lane Manual by commissioners in July.

Our two-year vegetation management program study was completed in 2017 and the citizen committee unanimously presented a program to the board of commissioners that provided for effective preservation of our transportation infrastructure while minimizing roadside spray and overspray.

Additionally, our Parks Advisory Committee, fresh off its two-year large events task force work is embarking on a multi-year multi-disciplinary Parks and Open Space Master Plan.

Finally, I will talk about our ongoing work in cooperation with the city of Eugene and state government to site and build a new Lane County Justice Center to replace our aging courthouse, a new and vibrant Eugene City Hall and significantly a year-round permanently sited Lane County Farmers’ Market.  This work is ongoing and I expect plan finalization early in 2018.

Infrastructure.

Our third county-wide priority is infrastructure, which provides the backbone that supports our work in the first two priority areas.  Our infrastructure encompasses both physical and policy-based elements.

In 2017 Lane County’s office of Performance Auditor completed audits and forwarded recommendations in a number of areas, significantly our Behavioral Health and Road Maintenance divisions underwent performance auditing and the results were largely positive and will help us plan better for the future.

Lane County’s Performance Auditor reports to the Board of County Commissioners and is charged with identifying ways to improve the efficiency, transparency and effectiveness of county government.

Working with our legislators we helped craft and pass a transportation package that will provide and expected 8 million dollars per year for improvements in our roads and highways and helping us maintain our 1440 miles of county roads, hundreds of bridges and bike paths.

The most vital aspect of our infrastructure is the staff of talented and dedicated men and women who have chosen Lane County as their place to work.  I want to thank them for their commitment to their work, their drive to make Lane County a better place to live and to work and on behalf of the 360,000 people whose lives they affect every day offer my deep gratitude for their service.

I want to call out the names of four individuals who have had a profound and positive influence on the work I do here.

First, is Deeni Leeke, the face of Lane County to thousands of people who visit or call here annually. You know her voice and her face, she works in our front office on the third floor.  Her nature and her talent make every day I spend in my office more pleasant and productive.

Next is Diana Alldredge.  You may not know her face or her voice, but Diana is the flawless historian for just about every committee and public meeting in our Human Services Department.  Before I became a commissioner I would often chat with Diana in her office while waiting for Steve Manela.  She keeps the most flawless minutes record not only that I have ever seen, but that is possible.

Third is Lise Stuart, who helps administer numerous programs in human services, but significantly is the data reporter for our veterans housing programs, Operation 365 and its children.

Last on my short list is Diana Jones.  She is my voice in the sky.  Her work is unnoticed by the public, but if she did not do it to the level she customarily does, even on vacations and days off, the public would certainly notice.

Only four names, but representative of the hundreds of people who have dedicated their work and their lives to serving the people of Lane County.

Thank you to the men and women of AFSCME General, AFSCME Nurses, Admin-Pro, Public Works Local 626,  Lane County Federation of Oregon Parole and Probation Officers Association, Lane County Peace Officers Association, Prosecuting Attorneys  and non-represented staff.  You make my life better and you mean the world to the people who live here.

2018 will see a continued focus on providing short- and long-term solutions to homelessness. Our overnight parking program pilot in the River Road area will begin and pair interested businesses and religious institutions with people in need of a safe place to sleep.

We will also work to update our strategic plan so that we are focused and prepared for the opportunities and challenges over the next three years.

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While we still face the obstacle of limited resources, we are creating the solid foundation we need to continue offering vital services to our community.

Working closely with our partner and overlapping jurisdictions is essential to effectively and efficiently providing services and infrastructure to the people we serve.  Finding new and innovative ways to both complement and enhance each other’s work is an ongoing process.

 

My term as board chair is about to expire, but my ongoing work will be more vigorous than ever.  Seeking innovative ways to leverage our resources into making Lane County the best place to live in Oregon and in the United States will consume me.  We had a great year—a banner year.  My work starting tomorrow sitting at the end of the bench will keep me very busy.  Until every child has food and shelter, until no man woman or child suffers from lack of medical care, until no man woman or child is homeless, the work goes on.

Please join me in celebrating our achievements in 2017 and looking forward to our work in 2018.

And now, to symbolize the magnitude of the work completed, planned and started this year, a site most people have never seen before, to recognize the brightness of the work ahead of us, Ms. Ashbridge, can you please shed light on our work in Harris Hall?

CURTAINS OPEN revealing the panoramic view of trees and sky outside Harris Hall

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