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League of Oregon Cities official: Without help, 'police end up being the first care providers.'

COURTESY LEAGOE OF OREGON CITIES - League of Oregon Cities has released its 2021 legislative priorities during its (virtual) lobby day with state lawmakers on Thursday, Jan. 28.More state aid for mental health services is on the to-do legislative list for the League of Oregon Cities this session.

Cities generally do not provide those services — community organizations, counties and the state do — but the league's immediate past president says cities are the first to feel the effects when there are few or no services.

"Our police forces are the ones with the first response," Jake Boone, a Cottage Grove city councilor, said. "The police end up being the first care providers and our single largest mental health system is the prisons — not because they provide care, but because that is where we are warehousing the mentally ill right now. That is not sustainable."

By most mental health measures, Boone added, Oregon ranks dead last or near last.

According to 2020 ratings by the group Mental Health America, Oregon's overall ranking was 47 of 50 states and Washington, D.C. Nevada was dead last at 51, and Idaho at 50. Washington was at 31 and California 25.

In specific categories, Oregon was dead last for adults and for prevalence of mental illness, including addictions; 47th for youths, and 24th for access to care. The latter is probably attributable to broad Oregon Health Plan coverage; 1.26 million of the state's 4.26 million people as of Jan. 25.

"Too often, people in crisis end up encountering law enforcement and ending up in jail," Boone said. "The League of Oregon Cities wants patients treated like patients."

At least two bills, both requiring state money, are pending.

House Bill 2417 would provide state grants to match city or county funds for mobile behavioral health crisis teams. Washington County operates a pair of teams, each with a sheriff's deputy and mental health technician, that also operates within cities. They are funded by the countywide public safety levy, which voters renewed in May 2020.

House Bill 2086 would fund a range of treatment, support services and housing by the Oregon Health Authority. Scott Winkels, a staff lobbyist for the league, said the bill also would pay for training of mental health workers.

"We need to build a mental health workforce," he said. "We simply do not have enough people in Oregon who have the expertise to provide these services."

The league represents Oregon's 241 cities. More than 200 officials from 90 cities took part in a virtual lobbying day with lawmakers on Jan. 28.

Among other league priorities are housing and homelessness, and recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and Labor Day Wildfires.

Broadband and utility aid

Three city officials from Washington County joined Boone to discuss some of the league's other 2021 priorities in a conference call with reporters.

Hillsboro Mayor Steve Callaway said state aid for broadband networks is as important as traditional aid for roads, water and sewer lines that cities are responsible for. He said the pandemic has called attention to broadband connectivity that is vital to working from home, learning remotely and receiving health care via telemedicine. He said at least 10% of Oregon's population, not limited to rural areas, lacks adequate access to broadband.

"The pandemic has not created inequities, but it has really laid bare and exacerbated the inequities that already existed," Callaway, the league's treasurer, said.

"We are creating or maintaining a huge disparity for health, education and economic opportunity. We need to be able to connect, now more than ever, for all of these reasons."

Hillsboro, Oregon's fifth most populous city, is building its own municipal network. Callaway said an early priority is to connect low-income areas of south central Hillsboro. But he also said the state needs to offer technical assistance to other communities.

"Hillsboro is fortunate because we have the budget and the staff to have some of these people in-house," he said. "For small cities, there is no way they can do that."

Sherwood Mayor Keith Mays, the league's current president, talked about a different aspect of utilities during the pandemic. While state and federal aid is available to low-income households for heating bills and weatherization, he said, there is nothing comparable for water and sewer bills.

He said city utilities are running short because of a growing number of delinquent accounts — cities have been reluctant to shut off household water — and declining usage from businesses that have closed or curtailed operations.

"This has resulted in budgetary impacts for many Oregon water and sewer utility providers," he said.

Property tax problems

Tigard City Council President Heidi Lueb discussed a longstanding league priority: fixing the growing inequities stemming from the statewide property tax limits that Oregon voters approved in the 1990s. Property taxes remain the main source of city income, although counties, schools and special-purpose districts also rely on them.

The limits cap tax rates for schools and all other local governments. They can seek voter approval of levies outside their limits, but because of compression required to stay within the caps, levies often do not generate the full amount that voters want for specific services. Also, similar properties within the same neighborhood often pay differing shares of taxes because of complex formulas for valuation. Bond issues are exempt from the caps.

"The present caps and permanent rates and growth limits have led to more city fees, deferred maintenance and service cuts because cost increases are outpacing revenues," Lueb said.

"The limits do not allow cities to work effectively."

Mark Gharst, a league lobbyist, said he hopes lawmakers will have "a serious conversation" about the property tax limits this session. But he also said that even incremental charges are likely to require voter approval, given that the limits are part of the Oregon Constitution.

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Link to League of Oregon Cities 2021 priorities:

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