Commissioners hear comments about homeless and trash issues

New Year’s resolutions to be more involved in local government were fulfilled at the Jan. 11 Board of Josephine County Commissioners’ meeting, where a much higher than average number of citizens opted to speak during requests and comments from citizens.
Several participants of the Anne G. Basker Auditorium – set meeting spoke about the ongoing issue of homelessness, offering constructive suggestions and asking questions about what actions the board plans to take.
“One of the things we don’t want to do is chase the homelessness situation out of the city and into the county because that doesn’t help anybody,” said one concerned citizen who said they had recently joined a nonpartisan group of Democrats, Republicans and Independents who are determined to solve the problem of homelessness in Josephine County.
“Our group has really started to grow and really be a positive force,” they added, and requested the board hold a workshop on homelessness so their group can get information on any plans the county may have regarding homelessness.
Mark Jones, who ran against Commissioner John West for a seat on the board last year, opined that the situation with trash dumping on rural land has gotten “horribly bad,” and floated the idea of putting security cameras near access points to known dumping sites so perpetrators can be held accountable.
Kathy Mallard of Grants Pass asked if there was currently a countywide state of emergency in effect due to homelessness. Newly-appointed Oregon Governor Tina Kotek issued a state of emergency regarding homelessness on her first day in office.
Cheryl Eldridge also addressed homelessness, asking if the commissioners could outline specific actions they might take “to begin to tackle this problem.”
The commissioners chimed into the debate surrounding homelessness with a rather bleak outlook on what they as elected officials can do to alleviate the problem.
Commissioner Dan DeYoung attributed homelessness hotspots to cities that offer free services to unhoused persons, which is why, he said, most of the problems Josephine County has with homelessness are found within Grants Pass.
He added that it would not be feasible to implement any additional taxpayer-funded services to assist homeless individuals.
“I’ve been with the city for a number of years and homelessness has been the same problem brought up year after year after year after year, with numerous solutions and numerous solutions have not panned out.
“It used to be years ago that the churches would take care of the homeless or anybody in need. People would come to town and they were out of gas and the church would step up, buy them a tank of gas, feed them, put them in a motel overnight, and then get them on their way again. That’s all changed now. Homelessness is an industry. Just like illegal border crossing is an industry, there’s a lot of people making a lot of money off of this industry.”
DeYoung said he’d be curious to see what would happen to the problem of homelessness if groups offering them free assistance ceased their services for a month, saying, “Everywhere you turn, there is something to help the homeless out.”
The commissioner concluded, “I don’t think you’re ever going to cure it. I don’t think you’re ever going to fix it, no matter how much money you throw at it.”
DeYoung called Jones’ security cameras idea “sensible and simple,” but was concerned the criminals would steal them. However, he went on, “It’s a good idea in my mind.”
Commissioner West said a top priority he has related to homelessness is preventing transients from living on right of ways.
“That has caused a complete safety issue… My goal is to work with the sheriff and Public Works and our legal system on how we keep our right of ways safe,” West said. “That’s going to be a process, but I think we can get there.”
West said his concern with security cameras on county land is “infringing on” citizens’ right to privacy.
“Just because you take a picture of someone going up and they come back with nothing in (their vehicle) doesn’t mean you know where they dumped it or what they did exactly,” said West. “So we’d have to be very careful there.”
As he has multiple times before, Board Chair Baertschiger described homelessness as “a human phenomena I’ll never understand.
“And I know a lot of good people are trying to work on this and guess what? Across this country, nobody’s got the answer yet. We’ve tried to throw money at it. We tried to throw services at it. We tried to throw rehabilitation for alcohol and drug problems that didn’t work. Doesn’t work. And you know why it doesn’t work? They don’t wanna change. That was the hardest thing for me to understand when I was talking and interviewing homeless people and interviewing elected officials.”
Baertschiger added, “They don’t wanna be like you; they wanna be like them.”
In other business, the board approved three contracts with ODOT for bridge work at Caves Camp Rd. in Williams, Democrat Creek Bridge in Takilma and Lower Grave Creek Road Bridge in Wolf Creek, respectively. “These are contracts to replace or fix these bridges and improve them,” explained Baertschiger.
The contract for Caves Camp Rd. was for bridge deck replacement; $1,284,664.41 was secured in state/federal funds, requiring a 10.27% match of $147,035.59 from the county. The contract for Democrat Creek Bridge was for full replacement; $2,737,527.57 was secured in state/federal funds, requiring a 10.27% match of $313,327.43 from the county. The contract for Lower Grave Creek Rd. was for full replacement; $1,567,403.64 was secured in state/federal funds, requiring a 10.27% match of $179,396.36 from the county.
JoCo Emergency Management Director Emily Ring approached the podium to detail an agreement with Grants Pass Fire Rescue Division for the Firewise Communities Program.
“For a number of years now, the Emergency Management Department has provided the funding through very restricted Title 3 funds for a couple of Firewise coordinator positions that support all of the communities in the county,” Ring said. “This agreement that I bring before you is the renewal of the agreement with Grants Pass Fire for them to continue to host that Firewise coordinator position. It’s a very popular program. They always have way more demand from the public than they can meet. So I’m very anxious to get both positions refilled. The reason the Grants Pass Fire one went vacant is because our much beloved person in that position retired as is his due and they wanted to recruit.”
There was some confusion later in the meeting when the commission was asked to sign off on a banner for the American Association of University Women being placed on 6th and 7th Street in Grants Pass. The commissioners wondered if a new state law that took effect in 2023 was a factor in their being consulted, as previously the board had no input on banner placements within the city of Grants Pass.
Baertschiger stressed that signing off on the banner placements does not mean the board supports the American Association of University Women or the message being broadcast on said banner.
However, West said he would not feel comfortable signing off until he knows “who they are and what they stand for.”
Baertschiger offered a different take, saying, “I will let groups that I don’t agree with put a banner up and I’ll let groups that I agree with put a banner up as long as we stay within the confines of civility.”
DeYoung sided with Baertschiger, clearing the way for the banner to be passed 2-1, with West the no vote.
Under other business, Baertschiger proposed a motion to require any future groups that want a banner on 6th or 7th Street to come to a weekly business session to get approval before the board will sign off on their banner. The motion passed unanimously.
Also at the meeting, eleven properties were annexed into the Josephine Community Library District by petition of the landowners, which “is always a good thing,” commented Baertschiger.
“These are residents in the county who are currently outside of the library district boundary who would like to be in it,” explained Library Director Kate Lasky. “So they have filled out a petition and they’re voluntarily paying taxes. They want to be part of the district. They will also have an opportunity to vote for the elected board.”
Last week’s roster of annexations included six properties owned by the Takilma Community Association, ranging from 0.34 to 5.1 acres in size, as well as an 80-acre property on Takilma Rd. and 5.24-acre property on Deer Creek Rd. in Selma.
“We welcome all these people to the library district and we hope you enjoy those services,” Baertschiger said before closing the public hearing on the annexations.