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Editorials from around Oregon

May 29, 2019

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

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Mail Tribune, May 29, on proposed funding for Medford program that buys bus tickets for people who are homeless:

As part of plans to spend Medford’s share of state marijuana taxes, the City Budget Committee has approved a program that would buy bus tickets for homeless people to travel to live with relatives in other places. The idea is a sound one, if adequate safeguards are in place to make sure the money is used for its intended purpose.

Some of the other proposed uses for $1.3 million in tax revenue sound positive as well: Greenway improvements, a fire strategic plan and money for a homeless action plan and the local sobering unit. Others need a little fleshing out — namely $200,000 for “visioning” and $398,000 for “various programs” under the general heading of City Council goals.

The “reunification” proposal would allocate $50,000 for bus tickets for homeless individuals who wanted to participate and who have family willing to take them in at the other end of the journey. This is not a plan to dump the city’s homeless on other communities; it’s a concept that has been in place for three decades in many other cities.

The tentative plan would involve social service agencies helping to screen applicants and a provision that would make purchased bus tickets non-refundable to prevent anyone from defrauding the program for cash.

Not every situation will lead to a happy ending, of course. Some participants elsewhere have ended up on the street again when a family placement didn’t work out. But it’s one more option that could be a solution in some cases.

Other cases could be helped by new initiatives that emerge from a homeless action plan, to which the Budget Committee voted to allocate $100,000.

The City Council still must vote to approve the Budget Committee’s recommendations, as well as decide how to spend nearly half the $1.3 million total that has been earmarked for City Council goals. The council should strive to use that money in constructive ways that benefit city residents, not just fund studies or other vague expenditures.

This is not one-time money; marijuana taxes will continue to be a revenue source for the city in future budgets. One enticing idea for the next budget cycle would reduce public safety fees residents pay.

That’s an idea everyone can get behind.

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The Bulletin, May 28, on a pursuit involving the Deschutes County sheriff:

Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson’s signature is right at the top of his office’s vehicle pursuit policy. And he appeared to violate the policy in a high-speed chase on May 9.

Nelson’s actions warrant an investigation and a more complete explanation to the public.

Nelson was chasing a suspect, Zenler Allen Clairmont, 19. Clairmont was allegedly impaired and suicidal, according to a call from a relative. “I felt there was a significant public safety risk to the citizens we serve,” Nelson explained to KTVZ.

But the sheriff’s office does have its pursuit policies for a reason. Except when a deputy must use deadly force, “there is no other action on the part of a deputy which creates such a substantial risk of injury to the public, the deputy, or the violator, than that of a vehicular pursuit,” the policy says. Nelson’s choice of pursuit tactic arguably endangered the public and law enforcement.

After the call came in, Nelson spotted Clairmont’s Jeep driving on U.S. Highway 97 in midafternoon. He gave chase toward Bend in his unmarked Dodge Charger, which does have unmistakable police lights. State Trooper Caleb Ratliff joined in. A dashcam video from Ratliff’s vehicle was released Friday. Clairmont turned right on Cooley Road and the chase wound back around to Tumalo and onto U.S. Highway 20. He managed to avoid spike strips laid out in the road.

Then Nelson made a questionable decision. The policy advises deputies to “keep a safe distance from the suspect and merely attempt to keep the suspect vehicle in sight until the suspect voluntarily stops or the decision to use other means to stop the vehicle has been made.” Another alternative is to try what is called a PIT maneuver — police nudge the back side panel of a suspect vehicle in an attempt to spin it out.

Nelson did something different. He passed Clairmont’s Jeep on Highway 20 where the road is multiple lanes climbing out of Tumalo toward Bend. Nelson then braked in front of Clairmont, blocking both lanes toward Bend. Clairmont swerved to the left into the lane of oncoming traffic to get around Nelson and nearly hit a sheriff’s deputy’s vehicle head on. “This is not good. Stop,” shouted Trooper Ratliff, who was still following.

Nelson’s passing action appears to directly violate the pursuit policy. “When in pursuit of a fleeing suspect, deputies should not attempt to overtake or pass the suspect. This action places the deputy in a highly vulnerable position,” the policy says. Even if Nelson believed Clairmont was a danger, it was not the best option.

Another curious matter is that Nelson’s name was left out of the original news release describing the incident. He was also described as a deputy. While some initial news releases from law enforcement do not include names, it was false to describe Nelson as a deputy.

Clairmont was eventually captured and arrested after he ran into a Bend police vehicle, injuring an officer and a police dog. And no one else was apparently injured in the chase.

Who is going to investigate the pursuit to ensure the policy was followed? What if anything has been learned about pursuits from this incident? Normally an investigation would be conducted by the chain of command in the sheriff’s office, but that hardly seems appropriate in this case. The sheriff’s office has declined to speak to The Bulletin about the incident. The public deserves more answers.

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Albany Democrat-Herald, May 28, on reform proposal for Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System:

We suppose we should be grateful that the Oregon Legislature has even acknowledged the slow-motion crisis that is the Public Employees Retirement System. The problem is that the action the Legislature is primed to take this session — in the form of Senate Bill 1049 — is basically the same strategy it’s used for decades: kicking the can down the road.

Even state Sen. Sara Gelser of Corvallis, who is gaining a reputation this session for unusually blunt talk, recognized the problem: She was one of five Democrats who voted against the bill, which passed on a 16-12 vote. (The mid-valley’s other senator, Republican Fred Girod of Stayton, was one of three Republicans who voted for it; he called it “the hardest vote of our lives.”)

To be fair, there is a hard part of Senate Bill 1049, and it’s going to be hard for members of the House of Representatives when they take up the measure: The bill proposes redirecting a portion of the retirement contributions employees currently make to a supplemental 401(k)-like savings plan. Under the provisions of the bill, some of those contributions — 2.5% of pay for employees hired before Aug. 28, 2003, and 0.75% for employees hired after — would go into an account that would support pension benefits.

By reducing the amount of money going into the supplementary retirement accounts, the plan would reduce employees’ overall retirement benefits by 1 to 2 percent of pay, according to The Oregonian’s Ted Sickinger, whose reporting on PERS continues to be essential.

That might not seem like a lot, but as Sickinger noted, many public employees say they’re underpaid today, and there’s some merit to that argument. And public employee unions are bitterly opposed to these provisions in Senate Bill 1049, so voting for it did require some political courage on the part of senators.

But here’s the problem with the bill: It doesn’t put much of a dent in the $27 billion unfunded liability currently stalking the state’s pension system. And, in fact, some 75% of its cost savings (estimated at about $1.2 billion to $1.8 billion in the 2021-23 budget cycle) come from extending the minimum payment schedule on the deficit by eight to 10 years.

Gelser didn’t mince words: “We are pushing this cost off to future legislatures, to other Oregonians hoping that at some point in the future we will come back and find something that is politically feasible,” she said during debate on the measure. “That doesn’t make sense to me because that is how we got to this place right now.”

If the bill passes the House, and is signed by Gov. Kate Brown, taxpayers won’t pay off the PERS deficit until the 2041-43 budget cycle, as opposed to paying it off by 2035.

But that relies on a pair of questionable assumptions. First, it assumes that the system continues to generate its average rates of return on investments, but that’s an area in which the system has struggled in the past. (To be fair, it often has been saddled with unrealistic rates of returns in an attempt to make the books look a little better.)

The second assumption is even more questionable: A prolonged economic downturn could play havoc with these plans. And one thing is for sure: Our extended economic expansion will not endure forever. In fact, some economists (including some who work for the state) say it could come as early as next year. We can’t say when the downturn will occur. But you can be sure it will come,

Part of the reasoning behind Senate Bill 1049 is to help ensure that the revenue headed to Oregon’s K-12 school districts thanks to a new tax on businesses won’t be swallowed up by increasing PERS premiums. The bill will help prevent that. But legislators are fooling themselves if they think this is the last word on PERS reform.

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