County vets ID card proposal

ANNA WILLIAMS speaks in favor of a community photo identity card proposal at Tuesday’s Hood River County Board of Commissioners meeting as Lisa Knight Davies, county counsel, and Jeff Hecksel, county administrator, look on.

Photo by Patrick Mulvihill
ANNA WILLIAMS speaks in favor of a community photo identity card proposal at Tuesday’s Hood River County Board of Commissioners meeting as Lisa Knight Davies, county counsel, and Jeff Hecksel, county administrator, look on.

Hood River County cannot pay for a community ID program, its elected board said Tuesday, but staff will take a closer look at how they could hand off the program to a non-profit group.

The photo identification card system, which would be the first of its kind in the Northwest, would create a local program for residents who don’t otherwise have a government-issued card, available to all residents 14 and up.

Proponents say the cards, costing $20 each, would grant certain underserved communities — such as immigrants, the elderly, and homeless — access to services like cashing a check, opening a bank account, using a library, or picking up medications.

About 18 different government entities nationwide have implemented the concept.

The program is expected to cost about $90,000 in year one, $50,000 by the fourth year, when as many as one in four county residents would possess a card.

The county board of commissioners on Tuesday voiced tentative support but raised two major sticking points: potential liability and cost on the county’s part.

The county faces a $1.6 million shortfall coming into next year, according to Commissioner Les Perkins, and absorbing any new program constitutes a “non-starter.”

However, commissioners voiced an intention to keep up talks with other jurisdictions that have ran the program to assess if the county could authorize the program and then have a non-profit operate it, skirting obstacles a government body faces.

In October, Columbia Gorge Ecumenical Ministries pitched the ID card idea to the board. They brought back the matter at City Council Jan. 8, and drew favorable impressions from not only council members, but law enforcement officials. Police Chief Neal Holste and Sheriff Matt English have encouraged the concept.

City Council sent a letter to the county voicing its support for the ID program.

But neither the city nor county has so far committed any money.

Groups backing the ID plan have raised funds — about $30,000 in grants and donations, with another $40,000 or more pending county approval or other criteria, Mark Thomas of Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital said in a Jan. 9 email.

“These funds, plus fees, would fully cover the projected budget we provided, and should be self-sustaining with fees only by year four,” Thomas said.

County Administrator Jeff Hecksel and Records and Assessment Director Brian Beebe told the board and gathered audience Jan. 16 about studies the county has done into the program, including talks with entities that run similar systems, such as Johnson County, Iowa, and Washtenaw County, Mich.

The county’s insurer, Jonathan Zacharias, sent an email laying out concerns that the program would make the county vulnerable in a legal sense.

Fee revenue from the program would be lower than the group’s presentation originally anticipated, according to Beebe — $10,000 instead of $50,000, according to the amount of cards other jurisdictions reported issuing per year.

Beebe said if the county moves forward, it should take a bevy of steps, such as determining criteria and security of the cards, and staff and law enforcement training.

“Probably the most important step is gaining broad acceptance in the community,” Beebe said.

Three speakers supported the ID cards.

Anna Williams, with GEM, acknowledged challenges and pledged the group’s support. “We stand ready to assist you so please don’t hesitate to call on us,” Williams said.

She suggested alternatives such as using nonprofit staff, changing the fee amount, and shortening the renewal period.

Lorena Ruiz, vice-president of Hood River Latinos en Accion, said, “It’s very important for us have an identity in the community.”

Vicky Stifter, a pastor at Riverside Community Church, said, “While an ID card may seem like a small step, it goes a long way towards recognizing and cherishing those who are in our community to pursue the American dream.”

Commissioners and staff said they see the value, but they referenced monetary issues. Hecksel said the county will soon discuss whether they can afford 24-hour hour law enforcement coverage.

“It’s tough getting good ideas and not being able to approach that from a position of strength,” he said.

Commissioner Karen Joplin said the liability piece of the plan is the bigger challenge than financing, as the groups supporting it have already raised some funds. She suggested the county study model agreements between other governments and nonprofits.

County Chair Ron Rivers said, “These things take time; we have to do due diligence. I don’t think there’s anybody on this board that’s against this idea — I’m certainly not.”

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