Hood River County is working to set up two major town halls to get public input on the county’s budget deficit, and what they should do about it.
County Commission Chair Ron Rivers and Commissioners Karen Joplin, Rich McBride and Les Perkins (Commissioner Bob Benton was unable to attend) held a work session on Sept. 6 to talk with Paige Rouse and county staff about how to go about arranging these town halls, which will focus on five specific topics and how they relate to the county’s budget: Public health and the extension office; facilities and infrastructure, including parks, trails and the museum; budget and finance; planning, building, elections, records and assessment; and public safety, including the justice court and the district attorney.
“The county is basically trying to educate the public about what services it offers, how much they cost currently, and historically how and why revenues have been changing,” said Rouse, the project manager at a local marketing and communications firm called Pageworks.
Rouse will help the board with the details of the town hall project and prepared a handout for the Sept. 6 work session to help guide the commissioners through the process of organizing and promoting the town hall events.
The county plans to hold one town hall sometime in late October and a second before Thanksgiving, so that county staff has the time to consider community comments and put together proposed legislation in time for the March election should they choose.
“We have a pretty aggressive timeline,” she said, emphasizing the importance of setting concrete dates and promoting these meetings.
“I think one of the biggest challenges will just be getting bodies into the room to participate,” she said.
She suggested holding one meeting in Hood River and one in the mid or upper valley in order to increase participation.
The town halls are the second part of what the county calls its Hood River County Sustainability Project. The commissioners took part of the work session to review the first part of this project, a series of focus group meetings on each of these five categories.
The five panels, each run by a commissioner, met several times during May and June to talk about issues related to their respective topic and potential revenue options, but primarily served as a forum for the commissioners to educate the public on what different county offices do and what caused the budget deficit.
The four main reasons for the general fund deficit are, the commissioners explained: Fluctuating log prices and restriction on the sales of “public” logs, the state’s limitation on property tax, increasing cost of operations, and loss of shared revenues from county land that’s owned by either the state or federal government.
The commissioners shared similar experiences of meeting with people who were only interested in one narrow aspect of their topic and of having people come in with very specific questions.
“I think most people came away with a lot more knowledge than they came in with,” Perkins said, especially when it came to clearing up false assumptions that many people had about how the county functions.
“(They understood that) the little piece that you might be interested in is a very small piece,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to do.”
The focus groups were successful in that those who attended “have a much more complete picture of how the county operates,” Perkins said.
McBride said of his focus groups, “The questions and answers that were derived from those conversations were for me the most valuable part.”
While the board agreed that it did not want the two town halls events to turn into purely informational sessions, since the commissioners felt like that was accomplished with the focus groups, they agreed with Rouse that it is important to make sure everyone starts with “the same basis of knowledge” and to distill the complicated issues into something that’s easier to understand.
They discussed setting up tables for the different topics with activities and handouts at each, an activity where people match revenue to the programs they want, suggestion boxes, and creating a short video to run on a loop that gives a basic history of the budget issue.
The board also talked about how to direct the flow of people in the room and encourage organic conversation while still making sure everyone gets the information they need.
County Administrator Jeff Hecksel recommended an open meeting format where people can pursue topics of interest by talking with people in small groups or having one-on-one chats.
“(We’re) trying to avoid a situation where one person stands up and dominates the whole conversation,” Hecksel said.
“I think there are a lot of different ways to get people to interact with this,” Rouse said. “I think what we’re trying to do is share some facts and get some input.”
A subcommittee was set up to work on the details associated with the two town hall meetings.
Updates will be provided at the next Board of Commissioners meeting, Sept. 17 at 6 p.m. at the County Business Administration Building, 601 State St., Hood River.