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Bemis highlights successes, challenges in state-of-city speech
by: John Klicker, Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis motions the crowd toward the food after his state of the city address on Wednesday, Feb. 20, in council chambers. Bemis covered the successes of the past year and the challenges still facing Gresham, including passing a public safety levy in November.

Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis capped off his first year in office by highlighting the city's accomplishments - as well as its 'big city' challenges - in his first state-of-the-city address at old City Hall Wednesday, Feb. 20.

'We've come a long way,' said Bemis to a packed audience in council chambers. 'Gresham has grown from a small town once known only as a campground, into Oregon's fourth largest city, complete with all of the benefits and challenges that come along with our new status.'

Indeed, the city has grown and the mayor, along with help from members of the city council, illustrated the point: they unveiled the new 'Welcome to Gresham' road sign that listed the population as 100,000.

In the speech, the mayor touched on many of the city's accomplishments over the past year, including:

The mayor signing a climate protection pledge, in which the city would follow Kyoto protocol guidelines;

Banning back-yard burns for all but twice a year to reduce smoke in neighborhoods;

Plans to develop a 'cultural marketplace' at the former Fred Meyer site, which will provide new housing, retail and a place for festivals;

Protecting Darby Ridge from development, adding 37 acres to the city's open spaces;

The city buying 'clean wind' renewable energy to operate city hall;

Creation of an Enterprise Zone, which prompted Boeing to invest between $80 to $100 million in new equipment and facility expansion;

Issuing 14 building permits for industrial growth in 2007, up from 2 permits issued in both 2005 and 2006;

With its broader shoulders, though, the city has had to tackle bigger problems in the past year, and crime loomed largest in the mayor's speech.

'We have seen increases in robbery, aggravated assault, drug crimes and gang activity,' Bemis said. 'Big city crimes like these are more expensive to address, which leaves our police resources stretched even more thinly.'

The mayor said the city has one of the smallest ratios of police officers per 1,000 people in the state at 1.2. By comparison, Portland's ratio is 1.8 per 1,000.

Bemis, however, touted the work of the community safety summit last March and the resulting Blue Ribbon Task Force for Community Safety. The task force recommended a $1 per $1,000 assessed value levy to help pay for programs that deal with gangs, drugs and family violence, as well as increasing the police presence.

The levy proposal will be on the November ballot and would give the police department between 34 and 40 new police officers, Bemis said.

'I believe that Gresham citizens are reaching the conclusion that the cost of letting crime run free in our community and erode our livability,' he said, 'is much greater than the cost of a few lattes a month to reverse the trend.'

The mayor also highlighted the successes made in fighting crime around the MAX line - a particularly troublesome area: a vast majority of gang, drug and fight calls to police happen within a quarter mile of a light-rail platform, police say.

'I want to be clear, I have said from Day 1 that the MAX is a fantastic community amenity used by thousands of Gresham residents every day,' Bemis said. 'We just want it to be safe for them.'

And the city has acted to make it safer, he said, highlighting the accomplishments of putting two police officers on the Max trains. In the first three months, the officers made 33 felony arrests and 101 misdemeanor arrests and excluded 570 people who were trying to take free rides.

The city is expected to announce next week a deal with TriMet to house a transit police precinct at the Gresham Police Department, which TriMet would fund, and could include 10 new officers.

Bemis also highlighted other challenges the city faces as growth and change continues, such as the rise in poverty and the irresponsible landlords who keep their properties in disrepair. He trumpeted a new city inspection law, passed in December, which is 'one of the most aggressive programs in the state.'

'I want to be clear, none of the crime issues we face are any different than those experienced by other cities that have gone through similar growth patterns,' Bemis said. 'The good news is that we have an awful lot of positive momentum and an actively engaged community committed to moving forward together.'

Longtime resident John VanderMosten, who lives in the Assert Neighborhood with his wife, Shirley, attended the speech.

'I'm really pleased with the way the mayor has worked things out in the city,' VanderMosten said. 'I feel like the city is really hitting the livability issues. To me that's critical, because in the years we've lived here … it hasn't taken the direction that I would like to have seen it take.'

VanderMosten wished, for example, that the city would have focused on developing more single-family dwellings instead of apartments.

He was also concerned about the crime rate, saying he 'absolutely supports' the levy proposal to pay for more police.

'I think the mayor's speech definitely addressed people's concerns for the city,' said Molly McNeal, 30, an office equipment manager who works in Gresham. She was happy to hear that the mayor supports commercial growth.

'The city needs to get businesses to come out and participate and really grow their business here,' McNeal said. 'This way people can be better employed and have more job opportunities.'

Roger Meyer, resident and president of the Rockwood Neighborhood Association, said the mayor is fighting for change in Gresham.

'This is not the kind of guy who kicks a can down the street when he's dissatisfied or frustrated,' Meyer said.

'He's a bulldog, he goes for it. He is very quickly growing into a very well-respected, substantial political force in this metro area.'

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