Urban Needs—Rural Government
Washington County’s Urbanization Forum
by Bruce Bartlett & Virginia Bruce
For the last several months, we have been taking a look at the governance of Cedar Mill, which is one of the urbanized communities in unincorporated Washington County (cedarmill.org/news/archive/UrbanNeeds.html). In the series we have explored the history of local governance and how service districts and enhanced county services have developed to meet the needs of the urbanized unincorporated areas (UUAs). We have also looked at some of the services that cities provide for their residents that aren’t available to us.
One of the reasons we have been doing this series is that we know that although many UUA residents feel the status quo is fine, it is unlikely that our governance can remain the same in the long term. Oregon law dictates that cities should provide urban services. County policy and the realities of the tax structure currently prevent the county from providing many of the services that urban areas need to remain vibrant and safe.
To address the situation, we have long advocated a public process to explore the options. We felt that a forum bringing together representatives of the county’s cities, service districts and county administration, along with the affected citizens, could define the range of governance choices facing us, examine the differing needs of various UUAs in the county, and finally find and implement a set of solutions which will evolve and enhance our local governments to form efficient, integrated and robust institutions.
So we are most heartened that the county held its initial Urbanization Forum on April 24th at Hillsboro’s marvelous Glenn & Viola Walters Civic Center (a great example of what a city can do for its residents). Leaders from all of the county’s cities and service districts, plus all of the County Commissioners and a majority of the Metro Councilors were in attendance. Mark Cushing, chair of the Government Relations and Public Policy Practice Group for Portland law firm Tonkon Torp, was chosen to facilitate the process.
The goal of the Urbanization Forum is first to achieve agreement on the range of governance issues facing us, then to precisely define those issues, ultimately leading to a comprehensive set of solutions.
The key questions presented to participants during the first session were:
What is working and not working in terms of how governments and service districts meet the needs of urban Washington County citizens? Are changes needed to address the next wave of growth and meet the vision for the county?
What services do we believe are necessary to provide to the UUA? Is there any difference between these services and what we currently provide to residents of cities and the UUA?
What are the options for delivering these services to the UUA? Must it be through cities?
If cities are not the only means of delivering services (due to practical, political or legal factors), then what is the mix of service providers, and can it be a combination of providers, including the county? Is there a financial impact on cities in terms of the method of delivering services to the UUA?
Do the answers differ depending on which category the particular area falls into ? (fully mature urbanized areas such as Aloha and Cedar Mill; areas currently non-urbanized but within the UGB and slated for development such as North Bethany and West Bull Mountain; areas currently non-urbanized but within the UGB and not targeted for development; or areas currently non-urbanized but designated urban reserves in 2009 under the ongoing regional Urban-Rural Reserves process).
The first meeting was a worthy start and participation was sincere. Participants were given the chance to make brief (and some not-so-brief) statements of their positions, their concerns and their hopes for the outcomes of the Forum. The sentiments expressed were widely varied.
Predictably, most of the mayors said that only cities should provide urban services. Service district leaders (fire, sheriff, water etc) expressed their ability and willingness to continue providing quality services to UUAs. County Commissioner Dick Schouten vowed to keep an open mind, and said that a single solution for all areas was not realistic. County Commissioner Andy Duyck said that a major hurdle for the process is that the majority of UUA residents are generally happy with things as they are.
With the county’s population growing by 1000 people a month, no one argued that the forum was inappropriate or unneeded. The next meeting is planned for June 19.
Originally, we had planned for the Urban Needs—Rural Government series to have one article describing what city residents get that we in the UUA do not. This was an underestimation; next month we will continue with the third installment describing those services we in the UUA do not receive.