Chair delivers State of the County address
The following are prepared remarks for Chair Cogen's state of the county speech to the Portland City Club on Friday, Feb. 4, 2011.
Thank you. It’s good to be back at City Club.
This is one of the few places in town where people don’t tease me for getting excited about civic engagement.
And that’s good, because that’s just what I intend to do.
Today I have been asked to talk about the state of the county.
But as I thought about what I was going to say, I realized the title is a bit confusing…does it mean the state of county government or the state of Multnomah County as a community?
Naturally, as a politician I decided to settle this dilemma in the most long winded way possible: I’ll talk about both.
I grew up in Miami in the 60s and 70s, and saw my hometown face many of the challenges now facing Multnomah County: a rapidly growing – and rapidly diversifying population; the need to balance economic growth with protection for the natural environment; and the struggle of ensuring that prosperity is broadly shared - by all members of the community.
When I moved here nearly 20 years ago, I immediately fell in love with this community…a place not only stunningly beautiful, but a place that vocally shared my values of compassion and sustainability and social justice.
I also saw a place brave enough and self confident enough to chart its own course .
That spirit still moves me, but while loving our community we need to also acknowledge that our reality doesn’t always match our self image.
It’s disheartening that we lead the nation not in the quality of our schools, but in the percentage of residents who go to bed hungry each night.
We see thousands of our neighbors unable to find work, causing families that have never before needed help, to face foreclosure and possible homelessness.
And despite our progressive values, our community suffers from heartbreaking inequality, which keeps our vaunted quality of life far from a reality for too many of our neighbors.
In Multnomah County, people of color, earn less than 50% as much as their white counterparts; they have high school dropout rates 4 times higher and are significantly over-represented in the criminal justice system.
This is simply unacceptable.
Multnomah County has to be committed to changing these things.
I am committed. Because for me it’s about Tikkun Olam.
In my house growing up in Miami, I was raised with the concept of Tikkun Olam, the Jewish belief that each of us has the…. duty to work to heal and repair the world.
Tikkun Olam led me to enter public service.
Now I know that might not be trendy now, in our current climate of tea party inspired anti-tax, anti-government rhetoric.
But I believe that Government has a huge role to play in turning our community’s values and aspirations into reality.
And I’m happy to say that Multnomah County government is well positioned to lead the way.
Telling the story of Multnomah County government really must begin with the more than 4,500 dedicated county employees who work day in and day out to help maintain our quality of life.
Their work is Tikkun Olam in action as we care for the vulnerable, keep people safe and give kids the support they need to thrive.
And our employees are supported by a Board of County Commissioners that is engaged, collaborative and focused on finding practical solutions to the problems we face… and I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge my colleagues:
Deborah Kafoury has infused the county’s efforts on housing and homelessness with passion and creativity, and has provided steady leadership on the biggest construction project in Multnomah county history, the effort to replace the Sellwood Bridge.
Judy Shiprack’s leadership on public safety issues and her work creating the Multnomah Food Action Plan have charted a path toward a safer and healthier community.
Diane McKeel has energetically supported the interests of her East County constituents by, among other things, helping lead the long overdue new East County Courthouse project across the finish line.
And our newest colleague, Loretta Smith, has in her short time on the board shown impressive leadership with a focus on the needs of children and seniors…and a relentless desire to provide, as she likes to say: real solutions for real people.
I’d also like to acknowledge our Sheriff Dan Staton and our District Attorney Mike Schrunk for their strong leadership protecting our public safety.
And our Auditor, Steve March, for ensuring that our residents get the best possible value for their tax dollars.
These are tough times in Multnomah County.
And it’s not just because of the down economy.
Changes to Oregon’s property tax laws in the 90s have severely undermined the county’s ability to serve our community.
This year we face yet another multi-million dollar budget deficit…it’s the 11th straight year of cuts at Multnomah County.
That’s right: 11 straight years of cuts.
Our broken tax system means that in good years we cut services and in bad years we slash them.
I want to be blunt: this is undermining our safety net, (Pause) eroding our public safety (Pause) and threatening our future prosperity and we must begin the work of charting a new path .
In the short run, this means doing everything possible to preserve our most critical services.
That’s why I am focusing on three things:
1) Restructuring county operations to make them as efficient and cost-effective as possible
3) Developing partnerships to achieve things we can’t achieve alone, and
3) Creating innovative and strategic responses that leverage minimal government investments into significant community results
Facing not just cuts to the county’s budget, but also an impending tsunami of state cuts, I decided that it was critical that we re-evaluate every aspect of how we do business to ensure that every possible dollar is spent providing critical services to our residents.
So, we’ve frozen management salaries; and we are closely evaluating whether our managers have the correct span of control, whether our buildings and fleet are run efficiently, whether our business services and purchasing can be improved.
We have even questioned assumptions that are decades old: does our workforce need to be based in offices or might it be better, and cheaper, to have a mobile, community based service model.
And we’ve been looking everywhere:
We saved the county hundreds of thousands of dollars annually by switching from Microsoft to Google as our email server, cut our energy costs by $75,000 by making the laundry facility at the Inverness jail more efficient and saved $45,000 annually by requiring all county printers to replace their empty toner cartridges with recycled ones.
I think you can see a pattern here: Multnomah County is digging deep to change the way we do business to be as efficient as possible without sacrificing our mission or values.
But keeping the back end running smoothly is only part of the equation.
We are also working to ensure that our programs are models of cost-effectiveness.
The Multnomah County Health Department radically retooled its health care service delivery, increasing the number of people served by more than 10% despite an 18% reduction to their budget.
Our Aging and Disability Services Division continues to improve in-home supports which allow low-income seniors to live independently while reducing health care costs.
And the Dept of Community Justice is using best practices in the field to reduce crime in our community by giving people the support they need to move away from criminal behavior.
Consider the story of Antoinette Washington, a remarkable young woman whom I met two months ago.
Antoinette grew up in a tough neighborhood and in her teens she got into trouble with the law.
On probation for assault and robbery, Antoinette came in contact with the Department of Community Justice.
She had to make a decision about her future.
With help from our juvenile justice staff, Antoinette decided that she didn’t want a life of crime.
She wanted to turn things around.
Antoinette enrolled in a training program at the county-supported Youth on a Mission Thrift Store.
The thrift store provides meaningful work for kids on probation. They learn job skills, earn a paycheck and get the help they need to leave their past behind.
Antoinette is 19 now and she’s the manager of the store.
She supervises others who are trying to get a fresh start like her.
Antoinette is an inspiration to me and I’m happy to say she’s here with us today sitting at my table.
Please join me in warmly welcoming Antoinette Washington.
Lorraine Price is someone I met just the other day.
She is a resident of the Montavilla neighborhood and has lived in Portland since the 1920s.
Lorraine suffers from macular degeneration and is nearly blind.
But that doesn’t stop her from living independently in the home she’s had for nearly 40 years.
She knows how to get around her home despite her failing eyesight.
And Lorraine has a son who lives nearby and takes her out to hear music on weekends. She’s a big jazz fan.
Lorraine gets help from home-care workers who handle housekeeping, laundry, grocery shopping and meal preparation.
Without this help, Lorraine couldn’t live on her own, and she would end up in a nursing home –costing taxpayers six times more than the in-home services she now receives.
I want to acknowledge Lorraine who is also a guest at my table.
Lorraine recently celebrated her 104th birthday.
And the best birthday present we can give her is to make sure that she’s able to count on the social service safety net and continue living independently in the place she feels most comfortable – her own home.
Working in Partnership
The second task we have before us is to create partnerships to accomplish things together that we couldn’t have done alone.
Domestic Violence One Stop
A great example of this sort of partnership is our recently opened Gateway Center for Domestic Violence Services.
Last year alone the number of Domestic Violence homicides doubled in Multnomah County.
It’s a huge and complex problem and there is no easy solution.
Unfortunately, we were making things even harder for victims of domestic violence who struggled to navigate a system that forced them to go to one place to report abuse, another to get a restraining order, another to access safe housing and yet another to get services…all the while living in fear that their abuser might discover them.
Despite an age of declining resources a community of partners coalesced to create a one stop center for victims of domestic violence.
Led by Commissioner Saltzman, the City of Portland got the ball rolling, providing critical funding for operations and system navigators.
The federal government, the state, the courts, The Sheriff, the DA and a dozen different community groups all brought resources to the table.
I’m particularly pleased with the county’s contribution: a building, which was sitting empty and unused, was made available to house the center…a huge contribution that made the entire project pencil out, and didn’t cost the county a penny.
I’m thrilled to tell you that the Gateway Center opened late last year and it’s been hugely successful, serving more than 500 women in its first 4 months of operation.
And while this was a true team effort, I’d like to acknowledge and thank Commissioner Saltzman, who is here with us today, and who was the motivator in chief of this highly successful partnership.
Crisis Assessment and Treatment Center
And we’re building on that success.
Later this spring the county will open an important new facility to help mentally ill people who are in crisis.
We are all too aware of the tragedies that occur when those with mental illness have encounters with law enforcement.
Again, this is a serious and complex problem that doesn’t lend itself to quick fixes.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t make things better.
Right now, people who are experiencing a mental health crisis have few options.
They often wind up in hospital emergency rooms or suffer the indignity of being locked up in jail.
Many of us recognized that we needed a third option: a place for people in crisis to stabilize and connect with long term help.
It’s not a panacea.
But the new center will provide a desperately needed service and minimize confrontations between mentally ill people and the police.
In the past, attempts to provide new mental health services often hit a wall of finger pointing and avoided responsibility: “it’s not our job, the state should do this…or the county…or the city”
I’m happy to say we moved beyond that - and the state, the city and the county have all stepped forward to share the funding of this important new service….working in partnership with wonderful community organizations like Central City Concern and TeleCare.
And I’d like to acknowledge Mayor Sam Adams, who is here with us today, and who never wavered in partnering with the county to address this issue.
Proving once again that when we set aside our parochial turf concerns we have the ability to make great things happen.
We expect the new crisis assessment and treatment center to open it’s doors this May.
Another partnership that is a literal bridge to the 21st century is coming soon to the Sellwood neighborhood.
I know that everyone in this room is familiar with the problem: the Sellwood bridge has needed replacement for decades and is rated a 2 on a Federal bridge rating scale of 1 -100…with 100 being the best.
But a new bridge will cost almost $300 million.
Multnomah County simply could not afford that on its own.
Once again, the solution lies in partnership.
The state and federal government have played critical roles, each making significant financial commitments, as has Clackamas County.
Yesterday we finalized our agreement with the City of Portland, and while there were a few bumps in the road, the end result is terrific.
Not only have our partners made significant financial contributions, but working together we improved the design of the bridge….making its safer, minimizing its impact on the environment and shaving $40 million from the project cost.
I want to thank my colleagues around the region and the state for their vision and partnership. We couldn’t do this without them.
This spirit of partnership needs to carry over to our relationships with the business community, as well.
In this economy, people are hurting.
And businesses are struggling to preserve jobs.
When I met Paul Wendlick, the owner and president of ISSPRO, he was in a jam.
ISSPRO – a local auto parts manufacturer– had just had its lines of credit frozen in the wake of the financial crisis.
Paul, working hard to compete against cheap overseas labor, needed to purchase some sophisticated manufacturing equipment to keep his costs competitive.
Without the equipment, Paul was going to have to outsource a big chunk of work and cut local jobs.
He asked for my help and though economic development isn’t on the county’s formal list of responsibilities, it is absolutely essential to maintaining our quality of life, so I convened a meeting with officials from Business Oregon and the Portland Development Commission.
Together, we came up with a way to help: A low-interest loan that enabled ISSPRO to buy the critical equipment in time.
That allowed Paul to keep his production line here; saving desperately needed jobs in Multnomah County.
And today ISSPRO is thriving, providing more than 100 employees in Northeast Portland with family wage jobs.
Innovative, cost-effective programs
I’ve talked about the county’s efforts to be cost effective and to create partnerships.
But Government also needs to think beyond the traditional; “program delivery model” as the only way we respond to our community’s problems.
At Multnomah County we’ve been pioneering innovative ways of helping the community… and I think there is tremendous potential here.
Here are a couple of examples:
You will be hearing a lot about healthy eating and active living in the next few months as part of a new initiative from the county Health Department.
Facing an obesity epidemic that has caused a devastating, and hugely expensive, explosion of chronic diseases like Diabetes and Heart Disease the Health Department decided to focus upstream and work at preventing problems in the first place.
We piloted a Healthy Eating, Active Living effort in North Portland, created a Health Equity Initiative to focus on communities of color and led the charge to have our county be the 3rd community in the country to pass chain restaurant menu labeling, something that spread through the nation and will begin this summer.
This exceptional leadership not only got results, it got noticed...and last year we received a $7 million dollar grant from the Federal Centers for Disease Control to help us build on those successes and continue to be a model for the nation.
The Health Dept. has now invested the Federal money into more than 30 community organizations throughout the county to create a broad-based community collaboration.
The partners just launched the “It Stars Here” campaign to provide practical community based solutions to the obesity epidemic.
This is cutting edge work, but there’s a reason that the Federal Government invested so heavily in our Health Department: their impressive track record…and I have every reason to believe that this effort will keep them on a roll.
Another example of innovation at Multnomah County - Our County Crops Farm - was developed in response to a crisis: Hunger in Oregon….and in Multnomah County…. has been skyrocketing in recent years.
When I heard that the Oregon Food Bank was having trouble getting enough food to feed all of the hungry people in our community I knew Multnomah County had to help.
But we really couldn’t help in the traditional way…. We couldn’t write a large check or start a new anti-hunger program…. We were facing a huge budget shortfall.
Luckily I had an ace in the hole… my chief of Staff, Marissa Madrigal.
Marissa got the idea that we could use surplus county property to grow food for the food bank.
And it turns out that we had property that was perfect for the job - the old county poor farm in Troutdale across from McMenamins Edgefield, which was lying fallow and unused
But farming isn’t cheap, and we were broke, so we needed to be creative.
I realized that in this case, the county’s greatest resource was its ability to convene the community …. And wow, did the community ever come together.
Area businesses, led by McMenamins, donated money to fund the irrigation system, the City of Troutdale donated the water, Metro donated compost and local farms and nurseries donated the starts and seeds….and best of all, all the labor is either volunteers, primarily through our partnership with Hands on Greater Portland, or what I like to call “not-quite volunteers” … you know, when someone gets a DUII and has to do community service… they’re the not quite volunteers.
Well, together we’ve grown more than 25,000 pounds of fresh, organic food every single bit of which has gone to Snow Cap, the Oregon Food Bank affiliate in East Multnomah County.
County Crops is both a substantive, important effort providing food to hungry people in our community and an example of what’s possible as we begin to think creatively about how we can meet the community’s needs.
So while we face real challenges, we have powerful tools at our disposal.
A lean, cost-effective county government – whose leadership works well together.
Rapidly deepening partnerships with jurisdictions around the region and the state.
And a range of innovative and inspiring community-based initiatives.
But even all of that is not enough to ensure our future prosperity.
There’s still something missing.
That brings me back to my initial question.
Is the state of the county just about county government or the whole community?
In the end, I think the question is based on a false premise.
Because it sets government up as a force outside the community.
As “them” rather than “us.”
But that’s not right.
Government is, at its core, simply the way a community comes together to address its collective needs and to invest in itself.
Government represents the community and is the expression of the community’s values and aspirations.
And that’s the final component we need to move forward.
An active and engaged community.
Because these aren’t problems that government is going to solve for you.
These are challenges we must all face together.
Our future depends on this community coming together to overcome our challenges to create a better future.
Because the way we respond to the challenges we face…whether we decide to dig deep and invest in our young people, and support our seniors and those with mental health and other needs, or alternatively we retreat into a shell of cynicism and disengagement.
Those choices will shape our future.
We’re at a critical moment – an inflection point for our community.
Are we going to shrug our shoulders and let it pass by or are we going to do whatever it takes to succeed together?
This is a state built by people who carved out a living in a hostile environment by working together, caring for their neighbors and investing in their future.
We need to tap that spirit again.
We need to embrace Tikkun Olam.
Because it’s up to all of us to heal and repair our community.
Each and every one of us needs to dig deep and find that place inside us of compassion and optimism and use that spirit to come together.
Get involved. Volunteer. Help your neighbors and your community.
And standing before you today in one of the Citadels of an engaged community, I feel confident that we will rise to the challenge… walk our talk… and make this the community we all want it to be.
And that together we will ensure that the state of the county is strong and that our prospects for the future are bright.