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Chairs set up 3-feet apart in a county conference room to promote social distancing during the special meeting.

Exactly 25 people gathered in a conference room — with a small crowd gathered in the hallway outside the door — for a special meeting at 3:30 p.m. on March 19, where the commissioners would decide whether they were going to pull the Public Safety Local Option Levy from the May 2020 ballot. The deadline to pull the measure, if they were going to do so, was 5 p.m. that same day.

“I’ll try very much to make this go very quickly because I know we shouldn’t all be here, I know there’s more people who want to be here,” said Commission Chair Mike Oates at the start of the meeting, “We’ll see how this goes.”

The meeting was adjourned after approximately 9 minutes, with the commission unanimously deciding to keep the measure on the ballot.

“I understand how things have changed economically and financially for so many people in our county,” said Oates, “I also understand what has changed for the need of these services that we provide in those same weeks. It’s as dramatic as it can get. I think the only fair thing to do is to continue to put this on the ballot. I think people understand the situation and will make their decision.”

Oates called for the special meeting after receiving a request from Commissioner Bob Benton to discuss the measure with the rest of the commissioners in light of economic changes related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I wasn’t aware that we could pull the measure but after I discovered that we could, I thought that having a discussion about it would be absolutely vital to its success or failure,” said Benton during the March 19 meeting.

“Since we made the decision to put this on the ballot, everybody in our county has been impacted directly or indirectly by COVID-19. The overwhelming majority of those impacts have been negative…,” said Benton. “To me, there are two questions that need to be answered: One, is this the right measure and two, can it possibly wait.”

Hood River County has enough reserve funding to maintain existing service levels through the end of the fiscal year, June 2020; but if the county has not secured additional funding by then, they will have make service reductions, primarily within public safety.

Benton explained that, due to the county’s financial situation and the necessity of keeping enough staff to manage an emergency response, he felt the answer to both of those questions was “no.”

The other commissioners said that they agreed.

“Come July, we’ll have to make cuts,” said Commissioner Les Perkins, “So if we don’t pass funding now, our credible services that we provide to the county are going to be cut to a point where we just can’t function the way that we need to.”

Said Commissioner Karen Joplin, “I think the county may be called upon to assist in ways that we don’t yet know, and I feel compelled that we have to put the measure on the ballot and try.”

“The way I see it, it doesn’t matter if we pull this now or it fails, the result of that is going to be devastating for our county,” said Commissioner Rich McBride, “The only way forward that can save us from these cuts, which will have impacts years into the future … is to run this as well as we can.”

More information on the measure is available on the county’s website, www.co.hood-river.or.us.

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