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Senator Merkley tackles several Columbia County citizen concerns at the Town Hall

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley speaks at Scappoose Middle School in 2019. Merkley held another Columbia County town hall last week, albeit in a virtual format.U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley addressed coronavirus relief funding, vaccinations and rural broadband internet in Columbia County during a virtual town hall meeting.

In welcoming Merkley to the online audience, County Commissioner Henry Heimuller said, "During his service as a state representative and as our United States senator, Jeff Merkley has emphasized fighting for the success of Oregon's working families. That means funding for good-paying jobs, strong public schools and affordable college and healthcare."

In his opening comments and before addressing questions from the audience, Merkley gave a shoutout to Columbia River Fire & Rescue.

"First responders have really been on the front line of the pandemic from the very beginning," Merkley said. "They are putting their safety and their lives at risk to serve us, the public."

Merkley continued, "In addition to every day life saving missions across 185 square miles, Columbia River Fire & Rescue collaborated with Columbia County's public health and Oregon Health Sciences University and Care Oregon to conduct a highly successful in-home vaccination pilot for homebound Columbia County residents. They went the extra mile many, many times over."

Merkley touted the recent passage of the massive coronavirus relief bill, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden.

"We did pass the major COVID-19 bill," he said. "That bill is going to deliver funds to the county and to the cities directly for pretty flexible use for anything related to costs associated with COVID or lost revenues due to COVID."

According to Merkley, the Columbia County government stands to receive about $10 million dollars. Although he calls these "ballpark" figures, Merkley estimates Scappoose will receive about $1.5 million and St. Helens $2.8 million. About $410,00 would go to Columbia City.

But, Merkley said, "The bill is so much more than that. It has a lot of funds to increase the pace of vaccinations, which is the best way to put COVID into the rear-view mirror. I think you could describe this as checks in the pocket, shots in the arm and children back in school."

Janice Czerniejewski of Vernonia brought up a topic of interest to rural residents of the county. She asked Merkley when broadband internet would be widely available in rural areas.

The frustrated Vernonia resident stated, "My daughter lives just outside of Scappoose, on a farm, and her internet is just terrible."

Merkley said he obtained "an 11-fold increase in broadband funding," but he knows it's still difficult for rural residents to get connected to stable, high-speed internet.

Merkley continued, "We've been helping communities around the state apply for reconnect grants, and we'll certainly be happy to help with an effort that the county wants to mount.

"Everyone supports more broadband funds. There will keep being more broadband grants, but getting from there to actually having functioning fiber in the ground is messy and complex. We're happy to help different groups apply for the grants. The grant system is there, but I don't want to understate that it is challenging."

Heimuller wrapped up the question-and-answer session by asking Merkley to share his experience on Jan. 6, when the U.S. Capitol was besieged and stormed by violent protesters.

"It was so unexpected," Merkley said. "The crowd that gathered was fueled by the belief that elections had been stolen. But that simply wasn't the case. Numerous lawsuits had looked at the integrity of the elections. There was no evidence of any systemic fraud of any kind."

Merkley added, "When the president of the United States says that there's systemic fraud, and the election is stolen, then a lot of people believe that. It made people feel, who were in the mob, that they were defending democracy when they were really attacking democracy."

The March 17 town hall was Merkley's sixth of this year. He has held over 400 town halls since his election to the U.S. Senate in 2008.

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