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Targets include homelessness, children living in poverty and transportation

Clackamas County commissioners have laid out big goals of repairing roads and building a new courthouse, encouraging businesses and developing the Willamette Falls Riverwalk, and alleviating poverty and ending homelessness.PETER WONG - Chairman Jim Bernard, center, leads off as all five commissioners speak Monday (April 17) on the state of Clackamas County. Others from left are Ken Humberston, Sonya Fischer, Martha Schrader and Paul Savas. Seated in front is County Administrator Don Krupp.

They did so April 17 in a one-hour meeting during which all five members spoke and responded to written questions from a live audience and social media.

The format may have been unusual — annual addresses on the state of local government usually are made by the mayor or county board chairman to a city council or business audience — but Chairman Jim Bernard said it was not unusual for Clackamas County.

"The big difference is that the chair shared the speech part with the rest of the commissioners," Bernard said afterward. "I love these things. I wish it could last two hours."

Bernard was a commissioner for eight years before he unseated John Ludlow as board chairman Nov. 8.

But a county spokesman said a new element to the state-of-the-county presentation this year was the county's advance solicitation of questions from the public via email and Twitter.

In addition to Bernard as chairman, Ken Humberston and Sonya Fischer are new commissioners, Humberston by election and Fischer by appointment to Bernard's seat.

Each of the five commissioners spoke for about two minutes, and then one or two responded to questions posed by moderator Kimberly Jacobsen.

State action?

Two of the goals Bernard mentioned hinge on action by the current session of the Oregon Legislature.

The county seeks a $1.25 million grant, which it will match, from a state fund for planning and building courthouses. Bernard hopes the planning will lead to a five-story courthouse on the Red Soils complex in Oregon City to replace an 80-year-old building downtown that is likely to collapse into the Willamette River in a severe earthquake. (Construction, however, is years away.)

The county also hopes lawmakers will come up with big money for transportation projects, including road maintenance and widening of a six-mile stretch of Interstate 205 between Stafford Road and Oregon City.

Voters last year rejected a 6-cent fuel tax, the county share of which would have gone to 47 specific projects over seven years. The board's next step is likely to await what the Legislature does.

Bernard also said it's time for the county to add to A Safe Place, the family justice center it opened in 2013 in Oregon City.

"As a small-business owner, I look at this as an investment in our future," Bernard said. "It's not only when we build a courthouse to get trials done faster, but we can pave roads and billions in infrastructure we need to maintain, and finally we can save lives, turn people's lives around and give them a better start."

Economic revival?

Commissioner Martha Schrader said the county now has regained the number of jobs it lost during the economic downturn. Nonfarm employment in February was 155,600. The number of unemployed dropped from a peak of 22,208 in May 2009 to 7,379 in February, when the unemployment rate was 3.4 percent.

"However, we have to understand there are still people in our county that need to get a hand up to move themselves out of poverty and be part of this economic renaissance," she said.

Schrader said workforce training provided by businesses, labor and community colleges remains important. She also said the county should continue to work with businesses, spur export opportunities, and develop the proposed Willamette Falls Riverwalk in the aftermath of the 2011 shutdown of the Blue Heron Paper mill.

Commissioner Paul Savas was less upbeat about how the county has emerged from the recession. He said he expects the 2016 homeless count, results from which are pending, to be up from the 494 recorded in 2015.

"I never anticipated years later that we would be in a situation where the plight of the homeless is where it is," said Savas, who took office in 2011.

"The good news is that we all agree on that and we will work hard as a team to try to combat that as best we can to help those folks in their plight."

Savas said he wants the county to continue to encourage business development along the Sunrise Corridor, the first phase of which was opened last summer after it was earmarked in 2009 transportation legislation. Savas hopes a second phase of the highway leading east from Clackamas will be part of the pending transportation legislation.

Newer voices

Fischer, the newest commissioner, said that while Clackamas County recorded the lowest childhood poverty rate (12.6 percent) among Oregon's 36 counties, "we also have pockets that experience 22 to 29 percent poverty."

Despite the economic recovery, she said, she is concerned about the county's ability to cushion the effects of anticipated state spending cuts on health and social programs for older people and people with disabilities.

"My priority is to look at the communities left behind," she said.

Humberston said he would like the county to resolve its dispute with Gladstone over library service — Gladstone has sued to force the county to pay $1.5 million for a library that residents of nearby Oak Grove and Jennings Lodge say is too small to serve them — and to promote and develop the use of cross-laminated timber in construction.

Humberston also said he plans to pursue meetings with residents outside the county's urban core.

"I know we do more than they realize we do," he said. "But if you are not there and they do not see you or have an opportunity to talk with you, they do not really make the connection."

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