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Commissioners – 3/1 Meeting – Homeless? What Homeless?

Even though a half-dozen people showed up at the March 1 Josephine County Commission meeting to urge the Board to declare an emergency and make the county eligible for funding to help get the homeless out of Grants Pass parks, it didn’t happen. Why?

Commissioners say declaring an emergency means they hand over power to the state.  Opposing the idea of declaring an emergency were Josephine County Republican Party Chair Holli Morton and the owner of a right-wing publication called the Eagle, Richard Emmons. Morton said families should take in their homeless relatives to keep them off the streets. Emmons mentioned the Soviet Union, land restrictions, how money from the state might be used for a motel to house the homeless and how that would deprive the sheriff of needed tax revenue, then rounded out his disjointed comments by urging the Commissioners to focus on “protecting our life, our liberty and our property and try to stay out of these problems that really aren’t a problem at the county level and let us have more freedom, less government and I think in the long term we’ll all live better.” Emmons did not include the homeless as people who need their life and liberty protected even though some of the pro-emergency declaration people spoke of the crime and hardships the homeless endure.

Other than hearing from those for and against a homeless emergency declaration the March 1 meeting featured several colorful characters. One urged Commissioners to take money away from homeless cats and dogs at the animal shelter and give it to the sheriff, another pleaded with Commissioners to unplug the county’s voting machines from the internet (the machines that count votes are not connected to the internet). One fellow said he’d sent Commissioners videos of the shameful things he’s seen on the internet and urged them to watch and respond. Joseph Rice complained about the lack of transparency in county government because no one will tell him where Commissioners got the money to put out the brochure promoting the sales tax that eventually got voted down last November. A woman asked why the Board has done nothing about the “bioweapon which most people call the vaccine.” She also predicted there will be a famine within a year and wondered why “you guys are going on like life is normal?” She said the Board should encourage people to buy garden seeds for their backyards because “people aren’t going to have enough to eat.”

Several people also got up to suggest uses for the Flying Lark, Travis Boersma’s racino he built on county land before learning he couldn’t have a racino. Arden Sleadd, owner of the Clarion Theater Company that uses music, storytelling and art “to glorify God,” said it should be used for community performing arts groups. Mark Jones said the Flying Lark represents an opportunity to develop a needed revenue stream and asked that “this gift horse not be put out to pasture.” Rebecca Anderson said the Flying Lark was designed and intended to be there to support the horse racing industry and it should be opened as an off-track betting facility.

Commissioner Dan DeYoung said it was never the Board’s intention to get the Flying Lark because it was supposed to be the “spark plug” for “the other side of the river.” He said a hotel and RV park might have been developed had the Flying Lark succeeded. “So we will take a long, hard look and we don’t want to be a too long hard look but we’re going to take in all kinds of suggestions as to what to do there,” said DeYoung.

For nearly 12 minutes DeYoung touched on the concerns of those at the podium with public comments, but mostly tried to justify why he won’t vote to declare a homeless emergency in order to get money from the state to help the homeless. He said if the cities in Josephine County want the money they can declare their own emergency and insisted Governor Kotek’s executive order allowed that.

“When we declare an emergency the power goes away from your elected officials to somewhere off in the state and we don’t have control to say well that’s what we want. They say too bad,” said DeYoung. He said the county had three emergencies going on last year: COVID, a fire and drought. Those emergencies took power away from the Board and gave it to the sheriff, Public Health Department and the state water master, said DeYoung.

Regarding the request to declare a homeless emergency DeYoung said “First off, I don’t know how much money’s involved, I don’t know where the money’s going to go, I don’t know what strings are attached to it and who’s going to administer it and is it going to do any good. We’ve been throwing millions and millions and millions and millions of taxpayer dollars and everybody’s money at homelessness then it gets bigger. Sounds cold-hearted. I’m sorry. That’s the way it is.”

Then, in an apparent appeasement to those present, he promised an “open discussion” before the Board make a decision on the emergency declaration.

Commissioner John West said it was his understanding that the county may not meet the qualifications for the Governor’s homeless grants. “I don’t even know what those standards are.” He went on to declare “everything comes with strings. Everything comes with giving away your rights or freedoms and the state of Oregon would love to take away as many of those as they can take and so we are to do our due diligence in trying to make sure that before we do something like this that we’ve looked out for our county’s best interest and that we know we made the decision based on true facts and true numbers.”

Regarding the Flying Lark, West said he felt confident the Board is going to make the best decision for the taxpayers. Then he addressed some of the more colorful remarks, saying he is in the process of checking out the videos about disgusting internet content.

Commissioner Herman Baertschiger vociferously complained that the Democrats said on their web site they are tired of hearing him talk about his experience with the homeless. (The Democrats actually said he is repetitious with the same story about the homeless whenever he discusses the matter).

“Would you rather me make decisions on issues that I have no experience, that I haven’t investigated? I haven’t tried to figure it out. Would you rather have me do that?” asked Baertschiger. “I’m tired of these very serious issues being used as wedge issues against our community for political advantages!” (Note: the grass-roots task force asking for the emergency declaration called PATH is not political.)

Baertschiger went on to repeat his concern that some agencies actually benefit from homelessness, then said as far as declaring an emergency, “it’s just that I don’t know what is an emergency. What percentage of the population has to be homeless to declare an emergency?”

Baertschiger also addressed the concerns one of the colorful characters had about voting in Josephine County. “The voting is a train wreck in this county. It’s too easily manipulated,” he said. “Unfortunately, the Constitution gives the states, the state legislature, the ability to write the rules on voting and in our particular state the state legislature put it out to the ballot and the reason they got away with giving it out to the ballot, they said, well the Constitution gives us the ability to write the rules on the legislature, the legislature to write the rules on voting and so we’re going to take that authority and give it to the people and so we have vote by mail in Oregon,” he said.

“I hate it,” Baertschiger added.

On the Flying Lark, Baertschiger said “listen, that’s a very complicated situation. It’s a very expensive building. It’s a special use building, It’s not a general purpose building. We are going to get some people that understand that space a lot better than we do and we’re going to get educated on that. This could take some time.”

Concerning a suggestion a committee be put together to make suggestions, Baertschiger said “we already have one. It’s called the Fair Board because whatever happens in that building out there is going to be part of the fairgrounds.”

He then went on to explain to the guy who wants to take the animal shelter funding for the sheriff that the shelter has it’s own money and “we cannot dip into it.”

To Joseph Rice, Baertschiger said he could have just called him to get his answers regarding the money for the sales-tax brochure, then added it came out of the Commissioners’ expense fund.

In other matters the Commission heard about the installation of additional seating for people waiting for busses, heard the first reading of an ordinance changing the zoning from community residential to community commercial on land near Merlin, heard a report from the Collaborative Economic Development Committee on future development and how the county’s airports are important to that.