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Issues such as homelessness and taxes were the focus of a forum hosted by business organizations.

PMG PHOTO: MAX EGENER - Left to right, Multnomah County commissioners Sharon Meieran, Lori Stegmann and Jessica Vega Pederson at a county chair candidate forum with business organizations Wednesday, April 20.The three most prominent candidates for Multnomah County chair staked out their positions on homelessness, taxes, advocacy for East County and other issues during a business community forum Wednesday, April 20.

The candidates, Lori Stegmann, Jessica Vega Pederson and Sharon Meieran, are all colleagues, each currently serving together on the county's board of commissioners.

Whoever wins will replace current board chair Deborah Kafoury and serve a four-year term as the county's chief executive. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote in the upcoming Tuesday, May 17, election, the top two candidates will advance to a runoff election in November. Three other candidates are also running for the position.

The role oversees a $2.8 billion budget and all county programs, including libraries, public health and homeless services.

The Q&A forum was co-hosted by the Portland Business Alliance and the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce and moderated by Ken Boddie, co-anchor for KOIN 6 News. The pay-for-admission event was held in person and live-streamed.

Not many people will be surprised that the first topic addressed during the forum was homelessness.

The county is facing criticism that it has taken a "housing first" approach too far, prioritizing the long-term solution of permanent supportive housing over more immediate resources such as shelters.

As she has done throughout her campaign, Meieran echoed some of that criticism, saying housing should not be the county's sole approach and advocating for a rapid expansion of shelters. She urged people to look at action plans she has on her website. Also, Meieran said she would create a "crisis task force" with the City of Portland and implement more ways to measure the outcomes of homeless services.

"The long-term strategies, of course, that work needs to continue," Meieran said. "But we need to focus on stopping the bleeding, and that's what I would urgently do."

Stegmann and Vega Pederson agreed that the county needs to create more shelter beds. They asserted that more needs to be done to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place as well.

"We have to get upstream" and better address the issue's root causes such as systemic racism, poverty, a lack of access to well-paying jobs and high costs of living, Stegmann said.

She added that she would create an economic development and workforce stability department within the county. "We don't have any economic development (department) at the county, which is crazy to me. We never say, 'Do you have a family-wage job?'"

Vega Pederson said housing and homelessness will be her No. 1 priority, saying the first thing she would do is convene leaders from different governments at the local and state level to strategize regionally.

"It's about bringing leadership first," she said. "We need to work together and bring all of our resources and work to bear to solve this problem."

The county needs to ensure housing voucher programs remain in place long-term and provide enough support resources for people placed in permanent housing to stay there, Vega Pederson added.

Asked whether they have ways to reduce people's tax burden in a county and region with several new taxes, the candidates said they are focused on ensuring voters see the benefits of existing taxes.

They all said they do not support a ballot initiative filed last month that would provide legal representation at no cost for tenants facing eviction. The initiative, filed by tenants' rights and social justice nonprofits, seeks to raise $12 million to $15 million a year using a 0.75% capital gains tax. The Portland Business Alliance has filed a challenge to the ballot title.

Vega Pederson said she wants to "keep an eye on" the county's 2020 business income tax increases and look at how businesses are affected by similar local and state taxes.

"It's about return on investment," Stegmann said, adding that the county's recent library bond will spur economic development.

Meieran said she's in favor of taxes if they're used effectively and have adequate accountability systems. Metro's 2020 supportive housing services measure currently does not have enough accountability, she said.

All three commissioners said, if elected, they would be strong advocates for East County, where there's a high concentration of lower-income residents and racial and ethnic diversity.

Stegmann, a former Gresham city councilor who represents District 4, which covers most of East County, said the area has never received the attention and resources it needs from the county government.

"But I'll tell you this, 'East County, you elect me as chair, guess what? You've just doubled your representation," Stegmann said, noting that a new District 4 commissioner would need to be appointed.

She also highlighted her efforts to boost the area's economy through developing the county's 90-acre Vance property and the Rockwood community's downtown.

Vega Pederson said she has close ties to East County, living in the Hazelwood neighborhood and representing District 3, which covers most of Southeast Portland. She said she has long advocated for East County through her work on Metro's Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation and the county's Preschool for All measure and wood smoke ordinance. "That kind of outreach is what I would continue to do."

Meieran said county commissioners have often deferred to Stegmann on East County issues. But she said she has connections to the area through her work on disaster preparedness and the Homeless Outreach and Programs Engagement team within the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office.

"We are getting together to talk about homelessness because some of the representatives within East County feel that the (Joint Office of Homeless Services) has not been representing them," Meieran said.

The candidates also voiced support for actions to prevent people from being priced out of their neighborhoods, dedicating new resources to the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office and additional efforts to reduce fossil fuel use.

Watch the video of the forum on the Portland Business Alliance's website.

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