The Josephine County Board of Commissioners moved straight into requests and comments from citizens at their Feb. 22 weekly business session, as there were no items ranked before this portion of the meeting on the agenda.
Some of the board’s most vocal attendees lined up before the podium at Grants Pass’ Anne G. Basker Auditorium to offer their feedback regarding how the county is being run.
First up – Grants Pass resident Victor Zaitsev, who has attended many consecutive meetings to discuss the importance of transparency in local government.
Zaitsev’s bone to pick at the Feb. 22 session was what he felt was a failure of the county to disclose exactly what is being planned for the Grants Pass Airport.
He was perplexed that JoCo voters are willing to let the Sheriff’s Department “in effect be defunded” but consistently vote to raise property tax rates in support of the Animal Shelter.
“Was this increase actually needed for operations budget or was it perhaps part of a long game strategy to aid the expansion of the Grants Pass airport operations?” asked Zaitsev. “It seems as though there may be plans related to airport operations and expansion. They’re hard to find out about.
“Well, today I would ask the board to confirm or deny that there are or are not plans, or whether there have been or have not been discussions related to: 1) relocation of the animal shelter; 2) relocation of portions of Brookside Dr.; and 3) expansion of the airport terminal and/or visitors parking area.”
Note that the Josephine County Animal Shelter is located near and owned by the Grants Pass Airport.
Zaitsev concluded, “I feel the public would feel safer if, rather than have no funding for the Sheriff’s Department, you eliminated funding for the Animal Shelter and made it self-funded like the Parks Department. I would prefer to see money spent to hire and pay deputies rather than to sweep up after delinquent and irresponsible pet owners.”
At that very same meeting, the Parks Department Zaitsev mentioned was dissolved and consolidated into the brand new Recreation Department along with assets that were formerly known as the Fairgrounds Department.
Commissioner Dan DeYoung shared Zaitsev’s gripe that voters will not vote for taxes to support law enforcement, while they will do so for the shelter.
“We can put something on the ballot for the dogs and cats and the animals and pets, and it’ll pass,” said DeYoung. “But putting something on the ballot for law enforcement to protect the citizens fails. It’s frustrating for us up here, but that’s just the way it is.”
Addressing projects at the airport, DeYoung continued, “Yes, there’s always been talk about, you know, expanding the airport and so on and so forth. I don’t know about the terminal and things of that nature, but most of that is done through grants. And in fact, almost any capital improvement out there is going to be done through a grant.”
Commissioner John West agreed with DeYoung, saying, “It’s my understanding that most of the money and improvements (at the airport) come from, as Commissioner DeYoung said, grant funds and stuff.” He added, “We’re not spending your taxpayer money over there.”
West also pointed out that it is far less expensive to fund the Animal Shelter than the Sheriff’s Office. “It would be real easy” to fund law enforcement if the ask was as low as it is for animal control, West opined. “But our problem is it costs quite a bit more than that.”
“Us three can come up with all the ideas we want, but the public’s got to be behind it,” concluded West.
Baertschiger dismissed Zaitsev’s implication that the county is not being transparent about the airport. He listed the few ongoing projects in the Airports Department – runway extension, fuel system at the I.V. Airport and city water/sewage at the Grants Pass Airport .- and said he doesn’t see any other projects taking place in the near future.
Another meeting frequenter, Judy Ahrens, was the second and final citizen to partake in testimony at the meeting. Her topics of choice were celebrating George Washington’s birthday and the oft-discussed issue of homelessness. Ahrens accused the commissioners of striking a “hopeless” tone when weighing their chances of being able to make meaningful change where homelessness is concerned. Baertschiger has on several occasions stated that he doesn’t think the issue can be solved because many unhoused persons choose to live in tents in public parks.
Ahrens commented on the “fantastic” citizens in Josephine County and how she’d like to see a group formed to look into potential solutions for homelessness in the county. She also floated the idea of the commissioners declaring an emergency in regards to the homeless.
“Come summer we’re going to have tons of them (unhoused persons),” Ahrens speculated. “The weather will be nice and they’re going to be parked out here overnight. They’re going to be all over the place, like Los Angeles has right now.”
DeYoung was skeptical of forming a new group to address homelessness, saying, “You want to get together yet another group of people to talk about the homeless?” asked DeYoung. “You know how many of those that we have attended and been part of since I’ve been on the city council and on the board of county commissioners? You’re not inventing the wheel again. It’s still round and it’s got a hole in the middle for the axles to rotate on. But if you want to put together something, you go right ahead and do that.”
DeYoung went on to say “there’s one thing that would fix it,” and that is “quit handing out stuff.”
He continued, “Maybe the people need to maybe stand down and draw something back a little bit instead of just keep handing out more and more and more. And you say they’ll be here, there’ll be more this summer. They’re going to invade this summer. Why? Because we’re known up and down the West Coast as an easy mark.”
Commissioner West responded to Ahrens’ idea of a new homelessness group by saying, “If you can get a group together and come up with an answer that nobody’s come up with, or nobody’s thought of, or a better way to work it, kudos to you. I’m behind you 100%.” However, he was against the idea of declaring an emergency because “we have to be careful that as a board we don’t want to give away Josephine County’s rights to maybe the state or someone else that they come in and run things and then you’re going to be mad at us.” Baertschiger pointed to the low participation at the Grants Pass warming center to make his point that making resources available to the unhoused is not the problem, but rather “convincing them to participate.” The board chair wrapped up his comments by calling homelessness a “human phenomena I just don’t understand,” which is how he has described it at half a dozen or more previous meetings.