Tootie Smith: No tax hikes, no new Clackamas courthouse
Rotary Club of Oregon City members received a sneak preview of what Clackamas County leadership will look like when chair-elect Tootie Smith takes her seat on the Board of County Commissioners this coming January.
Smith joined the club's meeting Wednesday, Nov. 18, to give a presentation of what her vision for Clackamas County looks like and outline steps she plans to take as the county's top elected official.
According to Smith, COVID-19 has played a major role in shaping her platform in the six months since she won the election over outgoing Chair Jim Bernard back in May, but her biggest priority remains fixing Clackamas County's budget.
"The county is in a situation where expenses are outpacing revenue," she said. "I'm not advocating for tax increases at all. As a matter of fact, I believe that with the Oregon Legislature we've had too many tax increases, and that's what I ran on."
Smith said she plans to balance the budget by prioritizing services and consolidating county departments for efficiency.
"I don't believe that the county can be all things to all people. You go on the county website and click on the 'department' tabs, you'll see 75 different departments and sub departments listed," Smith said. "My vision is to look at each department to see if we can consolidate services and work more efficiently."
According to Smith, under her leadership the county will take a hard look at what services are being funded with help from state and federal dollars, ask local citizens which programs they want to continue and which can be cut in order to shave costs and decrease the burden on the county's general fund.
"Top services will be identified, and of course, public safety is one of those," she said. "The sheriff's department needs to be funded for investigation, patrol and our jail systems, especially with what's happening in Portland with the riots and especially with our homeless population. Our jail and our mental health beds need to be open so we can evaluate people to find out why they are homeless, and then put them in the appropriate program to help them on their way."
Smith also believes that the county's labor costs — cost of living adjustments, step increases or raises, and insurance benefits for county employees — need to be addressed, but she didn't provide a plan of how she intends to do that. She said she intends to bring county employees back into their offices rather than having them work from home.
"Washington County has remained open throughout this, and that's a model I think we need to follow," she said. "We bring employees back safely with social distancing, plexiglass has been installed in areas and we can continue to provide services that I think the taxpayers are paying for. Taxpayers are paying for those two beautiful brick buildings, and I think the employees need to come back and occupy them."
Another priority for Smith will be to look at how she can stop fees increasing for residents of Clackamas County by pushing back on the legislature and Metro. She points to Metro's failure to pass its transportation measure on the Nov. 3 ballot as a signal from voters that they have no appetite for new fees and taxes.
"I would hope Metro dials it back and learns to be better players with their neighbors such as Clackamas County and Washington County," she said.
In response to wildfires that ravaged the area, Smith said that she intends to meet with the county's office of emergency management to try and help cleanup move along more quickly for some of those who haven't been allowed back into their property due to restrictions set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Smith also said she's heard complaints that the county's emergency notification system wasn't effective when the fires were threatening communities and intends to bolster the system to include a call to every cell phone and landline when an emergency is declared.
"But probably the big elephant in the room is why are these wildfires set in the first place?" Smith said, alluding to debunked rumors that extremist groups had a hand in intentionally starting fires in rural Clackamas County.
"They started on lands of the state that the Oregon Department of Forestry should have put out," Smith continued. "The Beachie Creek fire, which is over the hill from south Clackamas County, started in August and was not extinguished. That should have been put out immediately."
But state forestry officials say that Smith's assertion the fire began on state land isn't accurate. In fact, the Beachie Creek Fire started on U.S. Forest Service land, meaning that neither ODF or any other state agency had jurisdiction over the blaze when it sparked on Aug. 16.
Smith was asked to comment on the county's plan to build a new courthouse, an idea on which she's been vocally against. She believes that the county cannot afford the project expected to cost about $230 million.
According to Smith, she did a countywide poll which found that 70% of voters disapprove of a new tax to fund the courthouse, and she believes that disapproval is now stronger due to the economic downturn caused by COVID-19.
"My idea for a courthouse is not to build another Taj Mahal structure which we can ill afford," she said. "We can take a look at existing structures where retail spaces have gone bankrupt and are sitting vacant."
Smith points to the Clackamas Town Center as a potential opportunity to use matching dollars from the state legislature to retrofit space to operate as a courthouse. Smith said she favors this approach because it keeps the leasing company on the county's tax roll, it avoids debt and provides a long-term lease for the town center.
"But I am not going to entertain even that idea until after the budget cycle, because I'm very concerned about tax payments going forward into the year 2021," Smith said. "If the governor continues the shutdowns, I believe our county budget may be in worse shape in 2021 than it ever was in 2020."
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