Fire service a topic in Forest Grove, Cornelius State of the City
Giving their State of the City remarks for 2019 at a luncheon Monday, Feb. 25, the mayors of Cornelius and Forest Grove talked about big projects and future plans — but one key topic dominated much of the event.
Both Cornelius Mayor Jef Dalin and his Forest Grove counterpart, Pete Truax, devoted considerable portions of their State of the City addresses to talking about the state of emergency services, particularly policing and fire response, in their neighboring cities.
Talks on combining agencies 'proceeding quite well'
Forest Grove and Cornelius share a fire chief, Michael Kinkade. The Gaston Rural Fire District also employs Kinkade as its fire chief, and Kinkade oversees fire response in the rural areas surrounding Forest Grove and Cornelius as well. Depending on how one counts them, Kinkade is the chief for either three or five fire agencies, since Forest Grove and Cornelius' agencies both technically consist of a municipal fire department and a rural fire protection district.
For several years, Kinkade has been advocating some sort of merger between Forest Grove, Cornelius and Gaston, with the ultimate goal of forming a fire district that would cover much of western Washington County and a piece of northwestern Yamhill County. A work group including both Dalin and Truax began meeting last fall to discuss the idea in more detail.
"We need to be continually aware of costs. We need to be nimbler in reaction to fire emergencies, as last summer pointed out across the West. And we want to maintain control of such delivery of services," Truax said. "Those conversations are proceeding quite well."
In the meantime, however, Cornelius is facing the expiration next year of a five-year operating levy that city voters approved to fund the Cornelius Fire Department. A levy renewal measure is expected to appear on the May ballot, and Dalin stressed its importance during his remarks.
"This is critical to our community," said Dalin, warning that if the levy is not renewed, Cornelius faces the prospect of being unable to pay for 24-hour fire and emergency medical services. "It's critically important that this passes in May."
Forest Grove also relies on a local option levy to help pay for emergency services, as Truax noted.
"We've improved our fire and rescue service, our police department, and our library service, amongst other things, using the money that you've made available to us. … More importantly, we have done this, like every other city in the country, without shutting down," Truax said, a barbed reference to a 35-day partial shutdown of the federal government — its longest ever — earlier this winter.
The audience applauded.
Mental health, poverty cited as major issues
While both Truax and Dalin touted their cities' work with community partners — not the least of which is one another, with Cornelius and Forest Grove enjoying an unusually close relationship that includes a traditional joint State of the City event, something no other two cities in Washington County share — each mayor also identified a concern that goes beyond Forest Grove and Cornelius.
Departing from his usual updates on the goings-on of Cornelius, Dalin told the audience that he awoke last fall to the sound of someone breaking into his home. He and his wife were able to get the intruder to leave without further incident, he said, but he discovered the man was "in a delusional state" and had been trying to rescue people he believed were locked inside the Dalins' house. To date, Dalin said, the criminal justice system has not been able to connect the man with mental health services.
"This is something I don't have the answer for you guys today," Dalin said. "But it's something that we all know that we have to work on. And I just wanted to share with you this personal experience so you understand what's going on out there — how critically important this is."
Truax was a vocal advocate last year for two "affordable housing" measures on the ballot, both of which passed. He is keen to see the $652.8 million Metro bond that voters approved go to use, and he wants to see a portion of that housing for low-income individuals and families built in Forest Grove, he said.
According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, Forest Grove is the poorest city in Washington County with a population of 5,000 or greater. It has both the lowest median household income at $49,857, more than $8,000 lower than Cornelius, and the highest poverty rate at 15.4 percent, two percentage points more than Beaverton. But it isn't the only suburb or bedroom community of Portland that grapples with poverty, and in swaths of rural Oregon, poverty is crushing. Ontario, just across the Snake River from Idaho, has an estimated median household income of $31,182 and a staggeringly high poverty rate of 35.2 percent.
All told, 13.2 percent of Oregon's population is estimated to live in poverty, according to Census Bureau data. That comes out to about 553,000 people, making it only a modest overstatement — Portland has an estimated population of about 647,000 — when Truax declared, "If poverty were a city, it'd be the largest in the state."
He added, "That should be unacceptable to all of us."
Library, transportation also discussed in remarks
The mayors' remarks touched on other subjects as well.
Dalin hailed the re-opening of the Cornelius Public Library this week in a new, much larger space on the ground floor of Cornelius Place, 1310 N. Adair St. The library enjoyed the support of a "storm of volunteers" Saturday, Feb. 16, who accomplished in a matter of hours what the library had expected to take a few days to complete: moving books, furniture and equipment from the old library space in the Cornelius Civic Center across the alleyway to Cornelius Place.
"Cornelius Place is the place we've been dreaming about," said Dalin, who also boasted of the 44 units of affordable housing now leasing on the building's second and third floors.
In Forest Grove, optimism is growing that two or three difficult intersections in town will soon undergo improvements. Truax said the city has committed to work with Washington County and the Oregon Department of Transportation on traffic safety projects at the intersections of Highway 47, Fern Hill Road and Maple Street in south Forest Grove; Highway 47 and Martin Road in east Forest Grove; and Gales Creek and Thatcher roads in northwest Forest Grove.
"In the past, we worked with county leaders in … building an extension of David Hill Road from Thatcher to Highway 47," Truax said. "That project, including the roundabout, has noticeably improved the east-west connectivity, especially for those who wish to help ease the congestion on Pacific Avenue and Adair and Baseline (streets) in Cornelius. But with that effort completed, Martin Road (and) Highway 47 deserves to be back in the queue."
Truax is also looking forward to 2022. That year, Forest Grove will celebrate its sesquicentennial — 150 years since it was incorporated in 1872, the first city to do so in Washington County.
"It should be more than fireworks. It should be more than parades," Truax said. "I view it as an opportunity to not only remember the first one and one-half centuries, but also to plan for what the next 100 years will look like. What will we leave for those who follow?"
The mayors addressed a crowd at the Forest Grove Community Auditorium that braved slushy roads and sidewalks, conditions left over from an early-morning snowfall Monday.
The event was hosted by the Forest Grove/Cornelius Chamber of Commerce.
By Mark Miller
Editor, Forest Grove News-Times
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