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Elected board members spar over decision to acquire Econo Lodge in Jennings Lodge

 GOOGLE MAPS - Clackamas County is vetting the purchase of a 27-unit Econo Lodge motel, 17330 S.E. McLoughlin Blvd., in unincoporated Jennings Lodge. Clackamas County has begun the process to purchase a McLoughlin Boulevard motel for the purpose of turning it into a shelter for homeless people.

The Board of County Commissioners voted 3-0-2 Tuesday, Dec. 15, to direct county Health, Housing and Human Services (H3S) staff to pursue a purchase/sale agreement contingent upon appraisal and inspection of the property, 17330 S.E. McLoughlin Blvd., Jennings Lodge, an Econo Lodge motel. The move followed unanimous approval of a contract with the same motel to lease the property's 27 units as a warming shelter through April 2021.

A heated discussion between board members preceded their vote in which Commissioners Paul Savas and Martha Schrader both abstained for separate reasons. The tense exchange of words centered around Savas' concern that the mechanism by which the county hopes to acquire the property known as "Project Turnkey" — a state-funded program aimed to help expand beds for the houseless through the purchase of hotel and motel properties — isn't being used as intended. FILE PHOTO - Commissioner Paul Savas

According to Savas, his frustration stems from his understanding that properties acquired under Project Turnkey would be intended to help provide shelter for victims of wildfire, and whether or not the funding for that program was provided by dollars allocated by the state or administered through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

According to Gary Schmidt, county administrator, the Oregon Legislature's Emergency Board changed the funding source from the CARES Act to a general fund allocation in a meeting about two months ago. Schmidt said lawmakers also went back and forth in a set of contentious negotiations over whether to allow the program to benefit only wildfires victims or anyone experiencing houslessness.

In total, the legislature has earmarked $30 million for the Oregon Community Foundation to administer funds for the acquisition of motel/hotel properties in eight counties and tribal communities affected by the 2020 wildfires, and another $35 million for the rest of the state. According to the Oregon Community Foundation's website, the goal of the program is to purchase at least 500 units for high-needs populations such as veterans, people with disabilities, families, communities of color, people with serious mental illness, people experiencing chronic houselessness, people vulnerable to COVID-19 or diagnosed with the virus who need to quarantine or isolate, but survivors of the 2020 wildfires will be prioritized for support through the project.

In a blistering set of remarks that targeted both his fellow board members and county staff, Savas expressed he had reservations over the timeline and said he felt blindsided by the proposal, having only learned of its intent in an executive session held earlier that morning. He also said he didn't approve locating the shelter in an area that already sees a high rate of poverty — an area he's familiar with being a resident of nearby Oak Grove.

"It feels like this is being rushed unnecessarily and without adequate explanation, so that has given me a little bit of consternation," Savas said. "This decision we're making here today does not change the immediate between now and April."

According to Savas, the board was informed in executive session by H3S Director Richard Swift and Housing Director Jill Smith that the motel's 27 units are already being used as a shelter and are full, thus not contributing to the state's goal of adding new beds.

"The people I see when I go walking every morning, the people that are homeless out here, there's no place for them no matter what we do," Savas said. "The kids that are sleeping in cars, the people that you don't see because you don't live where I live. I know Lake Oswego does not have this problem. I know where (Commissioner Ken Humberston) lives and where (Chair Jim Bernard) lives does not have this problem. I see this problem. I am passionate. I've been pushing this prior to any of you being on the commission with the exception of Jim."

After about an hour of discussion that was taken mostly by remarks made by Savas, Humberston called for the board to take a vote, triggering further frustration by Savas who felt he hadn't expressed all he had to say, which also included further concerns about the whether or not the property would need to be cleaned up by the county.

"There's hands up. Come on," Savas said. "That's unfair."

"He called for the question, that ends the discussion," Bernard replied.

Humberston pointed out that the discussion had already taken up more than an hour of the board's time. Bernard also pointed out that most of the talking had been done by Savas.

Commissioners were unsure whether they were voting to direct county staff to complete the purchase all together or simply initiate the purchase/sale agreement and begin vetting the property ahead of final approval of its acquisition, to which Schmidt confirmed it was the latter.

The board initially voted 3-1-1, with Schrader abstaining, saying that she felt the process was too "messy. At the last minute, Savas changed his vote to "abstain" based on "the lack of information, the lack of clarity and a lack of what the motion even really is."

County staff will complete the purchase/sale agreement and come back to the board in January, at which time two new members will have joined. It's unclear what action the new board will take in regard to purchasing the property.

According to county tax records, the Econo Lodge property was last purchased for $2.1 million in 2016 by Dirgesh, LLC.

State business records show that the corporation is owned by Dirgesh Patel of Portland.

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