A new direction for Washington County
This week, a new-look Washington County Board of Commissioners officially took office — and while we'll have more on the changes to the board in next week's issue, we welcome Kathryn Harrington, Jerry Willey and Pam Treece to county government.
It's not an exaggeration to say the county commission has been transformed. Three out of five commissioners, including the chairwoman, are brand-new to serving in elected office at the county level. The ideological balance of the board — while officially nonpartisan — has shifted, with a 3-2 conservative majority being replaced by a 3-2 liberal majority. Representation has become significantly more urban and moved eastward on the new board: Bob Terry of Laurel has been replaced by Commissioner Willey of Hillsboro in District 4, and Andy Duyck of Verboort has been replaced by Chairwoman Harrington of Beaverton as head of the board.
The transformation of the county commission comes at a critical time for Washington County. Voters across the tri-county Metro region approved a property tax increase last year to fund more affordable housing construction; shares of that funding will flow to the county, as well as to Hillsboro and Beaverton, its two largest cities. Next year, voters are expected to decide the fate of another money measure that would provide partial funding for the construction of a MAX line in the Southwest Corridor, from Portland to Tualatin.
Meanwhile, an economy that has been booming for the past several years is beginning to show signs of strain. Unhelpful rhetoric from the White House and the Chinese government's proclivity for abrupt, unilateral and heavy-handed policy and regulatory changes — look no further than Beijing suddenly deciding a little more than a year ago that it would no longer buy recyclables from the United States, blowing up the U.S. recycling market and leading to sharp rate increases in our local cities — have contributed to a souring economic climate, with many experts and officials alike describing the recent tit-for-tat of tariffs and tensions as a "trade war" that could spiral further out of control in 2019.
Washington County is often labeled as Oregon's economic engine. It's an apt description. The county is a center of manufacturing, research and development, and engineering, much of it in the high-tech sector. Just last month, the county's largest employer, Intel Corp., announced plans to expand its manufacturing presence in Oregon.
Our county leaders have historically presided over prosperity, guiding Washington County carefully through the last recession and keeping it on track for major growth this decade. We hope that continues. But if the economy takes a turn for the worse, this new county commission has to be prepared.
One of the most unfortunate aspects of the much-ballyhooed economic recovery has been that wages have remained largely flat for most Americans. Washington County has outperformed the rest of the state and country in terms of average wage increases, but everywhere, the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" just keeps growing.
That's why no matter what happens with the economy as a whole, the issue of homelessness and housing insecurity is one that our county leaders need to address head-on. It is unacceptable that even as the county has seen an influx of jobs and enjoyed an extended period of economic growth, the number of homeless county residents has changed little over the past decade. Responsibility for that doesn't rest with the county alone, but it is nonetheless a problem that the county must own.
If the economy begins to take on water, that will push many of today's earners who are living paycheck-to-paycheck and just scratching out enough to pay for essentials like food, housing and fuel into the category of "housing-insecure," meaning that a medical emergency or other major expense — let alone a layoff, reduction in hours or extended furlough — could leave them without enough money to stay in their home.
Even middle-class households could find themselves heading toward the brink if there are widespread job losses. Many adults, particularly millennials who have spent most or all of their working lives in economic conditions where wage increases don't always make up for the rising cost of living — especially considering how rental and real estate prices in the Portland area have soared this decade — have not been saving enough for a comfortable retirement, and certainly not enough to maintain financial stability at present if they lose their jobs.
All of this sounds scary. It is scary. But it is also the reality that our county leaders must be prepared to meet.
If there's one criticism that can be made of how Washington County has been governed in past years, it is that where the interests of corporations and developers have conflicted with the interests of the poor and working class, the former has often triumphed.
Huge tax incentives may encourage the likes of Intel to invest more heavily in the county, and it's true that the likes of Intel also bring jobs for people to fill. But while the high-tech industry is vital to the county's economy, it also demands a more specialized workforce than many other fields. The jobs that Intel generates are generally not jobs that the typical county resident can fill without additional training, and perhaps an advanced degree.
Meanwhile, the taxes not collected represent money not available for programs to connect low-income residents with housing, training and other services; for public-private housing developments; and for economic revitalization efforts in blighted and underdeveloped areas.
Governance is, by nature, a balancing act. Harrington is the county chairwoman for not just the 113,208 people who voted for her in November, but also the 81,201 who cast their votes for another person, as well as the estimated 400,000 or so county residents who weren't eligible or chose not to vote. The county leaders must craft policy for the tech manufacturers and the sportswear companies, the farmers and the lumber mills, the food carts and the corner stores, the schools and the libraries, and everyone in between. The county must be a place where the unemployed, the working poor, the middle class, the top earners and the retired all can live.
We endorsed Harrington, Willey and Treece last year because we believed they were best equipped to take the reins of a diverse and growing county. We intend to hold them to that standard over the next four years, whether those years bring continued growth, an economic plateau or another recession. And we hope that in 2022, when their seats next come up for election, we are able to say that we — and Washington County's voters — chose wisely, and that this county is a better place for their service.
Ladies and gentlemen of the county commission: You're on the clock.
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