Job growth and taxes headline Clark County Council District 2 debate

The race pits two republicans, Julie Olson and Elisabeth Veneman, against each other

CLARK COUNTY — The candidates for Clark County Council’s second district faced off at a League of Women Voters forum this past week. It will essentially be a rematch of the primary election, which saw incumbent Julie Olson pull in 80 percent of the vote against political newcomer Elisabeth Veneman.

Veneman and Olson have both identified as Republican on the ballot, making it one of the only local races pitting members of the same political party against each other.

In the League of Women Voters forum, broadcast on CVTV.org, the candidates answered six questions on a variety of topics. First was what they see as the top concerns of Clark County residents in the second district, which represents much of the western area of the County, including Hazel Dell, Salmon Creek, Ridgefield, and La Center. Olson said transportation remains among the hottest topic among people who’ve reached out to her.

“Not just the I-5 corridor and the bridge — that’s a huge one,” said Olson, “but in and around Clark County as we continue to grow, I hear from neighbors about traffic issues in their neighborhoods, I hear about the need for sidewalks — which I’ve been an advocate for also.”

Julie Olson, current Clark County Councilor for District 2, speaks at a League of Women Voters candidate forum. Photo by Mike Schultz
Julie Olson, current Clark County Councilor for District 2, speaks at a League of Women Voters candidate forum. Photo by Mike Schultz

The other major issue remains housing affordability, “It’s not just affordable housing, it’s housing affordability,” Olson said. “That’s choice of housing, that’s price levels of housing, the council’s done a lot of work over the last year in terms of innovative housing policies. We’ve updated our policy on manufactured housing — we’re literally doing that right now. We finished cottage housing, Accessory Dwelling Units. We’re going to be looking at multi-family housing policy. And we just passed a resolution … to encourage the legislature to look at condominium reform.”

Veneman said people she’s heard from while going door to door with her husband and children seem most concerned with tax rates.

“People are sick of taxes going up,” she said. “I know that on the council the property taxes is at one percent. It didn’t need to be voted on and it was, and people feel that, especially our older population, people on fixed income.”

Elisabeth Veneman is hoping to unseat the incumbent to become Clark County’s next councilor for District 2. Photo by Mike Schultz
Elisabeth Veneman is hoping to unseat the incumbent to become Clark County’s next councilor for District 2. Photo by Mike Schultz

Also connected to transportation, Veneman says a lot of voters want to see more job growth in Clark County, so fewer people have to commute into Oregon for work.

“It would be nice to have those kind of jobs here,” she said. “Not minimum wage jobs. Real career-driven jobs that families can live on and live great lives.”

The topic of job growth continued in another question, asking the candidates what their vision of Clark County looked like in 20 years, and how they would balance that growth with maintaining quality of life. Olson called it one of the most difficult jobs currently facing the council.

“I have a love/hate relationship — more hate than love — with the Growth Management Act,” Olson admitted. “But that’s designed to help do that (provide balance). But there’s some improvements that need to be made there.”

Veneman stuck with her theme of job creation as a top priority in her answer. “I would love to see us be a self-sufficient county in 20 years,” she said. “Not dependent on what’s happening across the river.

“Being builder friendly, being business friendly, fostering that environment is going to be key for us to bring the balance,” she continued, “and make sure that everybody in Clark County has fair beautiful housing and land to go with it.”

On the issue of the proposed Freight Rail Dependent Use development along the Chelatchie Prairie Line, Veneman said, “I think it’s great.”

“Farmers need to maintain their rights, their right of way, their waterways,” she added. “And I know that’s going to happen, so I think it’s a win-win all around. As long as everyone is listened to, and things go as planned, I think it’s a great idea.”

Olson indicated she is likewise in favor of the plan, but struck a more precautionary tone. “These are large parcels of land, which are in short supply in Clark County,” she said. “They are resource lands, which is what this law allows us to do is to build and develop on resource lands adjacent to a shortline railroad.”

But, she added, it’s become obvious that a large number of people who live in the area are unhappy with the proposed development.

“Again, it’s about balance,” Olson said. “If we’re going to put light industrial or industrial uses on the rail line, in potential neighborhoods, then we have to make sure that the we understand the potential impacts on those neighborhoods and that those folks have a say in what goes on.”

On the topic of the county’s difficult budgetary position, Veneman said it’s her position that higher taxation, or increased fees, aren’t the solution.

“You can be sure that where there’s government there’s waste,” she said. “We have essential services, and then there’s wants. There needs to be a balance between the two so that we can move forward and make sure we have the revenue we need to go forward in a booming economy where we are growing quickly, and we’re going to have to accommodate that.”

“The idea of ‘we have things we don’t need,’ I hear that a lot, but I never hear any specifics about what it is we don’t need, or what items we should cut or services we should reduce,” countered Olson. “And that is the difficult question.”

As far as answers, Olson said the county isn’t really in a position to simply increase their revenue.

“We’re not like a city or a municipality where we can go raise a utility tax here or raise another tax there. We have, really, two areas where we have some control. Really one area, in sales tax.”

Right now, said Olson, the county simply needs to learn to live within its means, which means making difficult decisions. One of those will be how to address the issue of the outdated and overcrowded county jail. An advisory committee has been looking into the issue, and just extended their deadline two more months to give them more time to bring some options before the council. Olson said it’s likely the price tag could be between $100 million and $300 million.

“The only way to pay for that is to bond that,” she said. “So if we talk about a new jail, it’s not going to be about whether we want a new jail or Sheriff (Chuck) Atkins or Chief (Corrections Deputy Ric) Bishop think they need a new jail. It’s about whether the voters are going to be convinced enough that they’re going to be willing to pay for a new jail.”

Veneman said she’s glad to hear that an advisory committee is examining the issue, and hopeful they can return with a good recommendation.

“A huge problem is releasing violent offenders, and then keeping in lower risk offenders,” she added. “Very disturbing as a mom and a person who has to live in this local community. We need to make sure that the people who are not so violent have some sort of access to programs that really get them able to go back into the community and be successful.”

That line of thinking also played into a question about mental health issues in the county, and what can be done to keep them out of the jail system. Veneman, whose parents are missionaries who currently run a rehabilitation clinic on the Oregon Coast, said she would rely mostly on partnerships with local nonprofit groups.

“I think the best way is to support nonprofit 501c3 and ministries that are really equipped to do this,” she said. “We’ve got some great ones here.”

Olson agreed, but said the county’s tenth-of-a-percent mental health sales tax is already contributing over $7 million worth of programs. The county is also donating space for a mental health triage center.

“We need an opportunity to triage these mental health crises in the time that they’re in crisis,” OIson said.

Veneman, who describes herself as a big-time history nerd, has also said she would work to roll back restrictions on fireworks passed earlier this year by the county — a resolution supported by Olson after fireworks caused a fire at her home last year.

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