Mixed reception to Metro homeless services tax at meeting
In its headlong rush to refer an annual $250 to $300 million homeless services measure to the May 19 primary election ballot, the Metro regional government held a forum in Milwaukie Feb. 11, one of three in each of its counties. A council vote to refer the measure to the ballot is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 20. The exact amount expected to be raised through the measure — meant to offer wrap-around services to homeless throughout the region — is unkown but Metro officials have comitted to a 1% personal income tax on individuals earning more than $125,000 per year and couples earning more than $250,000 per year.
At the forum of roughly 100 citizens (about 30% self-identified as service providers) heard from local leaders who spoke passionately about the need to take action.
Several speakers mentioned misconceptions about who the homeless are and how they became that way. Clackamas County Commissioner Sonja Fischer recounted talking to a professional woman nearing retirement age who became homeless due to a medical crisis who said simply "I didn't do anything wrong."
"We have to tackle this monstrous issue from all sides," Fischer said. She suggested that people consider societal issues in history abhorred by nearly everyone — slavery, forced sterilization or criminalization of homosexuality — and compare it to the level of wealth experienced by the upper class in the U.S. while homelessness still rampages.
Jim Bernard, Clackamas County commission chair, acknowledged the already heavy tax burden residents in the county experience, but asked "How else can we solve this?" and Metro Chair Lynn Peterson added "The crisis has gotten to the point of overrunning the available services."
BrocheAroe Fabian, communications manager for HereTogether, a nonprofit working with Metro on the measure, has herself experienced homelessness. She shared what the organization thinks is the causation for the worsening crisis: closure of mental health facilities without sufficient resources in communities, a reduction in HUD subsidized housing spending and the post-recession economic recovery that grew the population in the metro area but not the supply of housing.
Forum members broke into small groups to provide organizers feedback on what success would look like, how to demonstrate accountability and what factors might not yet have been discussed before Metro refers the measure for the ballot.
While attendees familiar with homelessness through providing services or personal experience advocated for multiple centralized services to help stabilize those seeking to leave homelessness, other citizens expressed their concern with the proposed measure and their own tax bill.
"In Multnomah Ccounty we're getting hammered with taxes and fees," said one woman who described herself as nearing retirement. "I don't think Metro should have asked for its last tax measure (Metro voters approved its $652.8 million affordable housing bond measure at the November 2019 election) if this was coming up. This is more important." She also told Metro officials that she felt the community "input" was disingenuous, as she felt certain the tax was going ahead regardless of what citizens said. "I don't think you have any intention of putting the brakes on this thing; it's full speed ahead regardless."
"Nothing is done until it's done," said Metro Councilor Christine Lewis after the meeting, adding that it's better for Metro to be a part of this measure so all three counties are equally represented and benefitted. The communities in her Metro district — Lewis represents Lake Oswego/West Linn/Wilsonville to Happy Valley and parts of unincorporated Clackamas
County — have tremendously different needs, she pointed out, and she understands the measure has to work for everyone.
The hurried pace of the measure's development did not concern Lewis, who said Metro could easily put it together in a matter of weeks once public input was gathered.
Metro has long planned to refer a $4.2 billion regional transportation funding measure to the November ballot so it hopes to have the homeless tax on the May ballot.
Other taxpayers at the forum expressed concern over the potential layers of bureaucracy the measure would create and worried about governmental waste. "This could be a sinkhole for more funds," a woman said. "You folks have an endless appetite for money and if this keeps up you'll have a whole lot more people losing their homes."
Another suggested "If this is really a crisis, go into the money you already have and don't single out a certain population to get more."
However, some attendees liked the idea of a regional government taking the reins on a regional problem, pointing out the inefficiencies of various cities and counties all nibbling at the edges of the issue with little coordination.
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