Tag Archives: Government waste

Bruce McCain: Time to “Occupy” Wapato

Unused Wapato Jail contains $600,000.00 of art.  Photo by Bruce McCain
Unused Wapato Jail contains $600,000.00 of art and no inmates.
Photo by Bruce McCain

We are now fast approaching the two-year anniversary of Occupy Portland, whose members illegally occupied Lownsdale and Chapman Squares in downtown Portland for six weeks in October and November 2011.  While most of the media and public attention focused on the circus unfolding across from Portland city hall and the Portland Building, a few blocks away at 4th Avenue and Burnside Street another protest camp was setting up shop on private – not public property. A newly formed nonprofit group, Right 2 Dream Too, had “rented” for $1 dollar per year a vacant lot owned by Michael Wright, who has had his own long-running beef with the city after former Commissioner Randy Leonard forced the closure of Wright’s Cindy’s Adult Bookstore in 2007. The “tenants” then proceeded to erect a couple dozen tents on the paved surface, a practice that eventually generated thousands in fines and a lawsuit by the campers against the city.

 While the Occupy movement may have been driven by radical left-wing ideology, the Right 2 Dream Toomovement was founded and driven by a mostly singular issue – homelessness, albeit with a definite progressive flavor. The group was supported by a quasi-parent organization, begun two years earlier in 2009, known as Right to Survive PDX, self-described as “a direct action group that educates both houseless and housed people on their civil, human, and constitutional rights.”

Fast-forward to Fall 2013 and Occupy Portland is mostly a bad and at times amusing memory for law-abiding residents and tax payers of Portland. Last month a seven-member federal jury in Portland took less than four hours to clear Portland Police officers of allegations of excessive force in a civil suit brought by activist and protester Liz Nichols, who received a mouthful of pepper spray from one of Portland’s finest. Nichols’ loud mouth encounter with Sgt. Jeffery McDaniel became permanently memorialized in Oregonian photographer Randy Rasmussen’s iconic image that has come to define the six-week siege. Today, the Occupy Portland movement has been reduced mostly to a Facebook page that boasts more than 29,000 “Likes” and 23,000 “Talking About” numbers, as if those Facebook metrics actually translate into effective political power.

While the Occupy movement has become “so 2011,” the Right 2 Dream Too movement continues to present troublesome issues for Portland city hall in general and council member Amanda Fritz in particular. In the latest development between the parties, Fritz recently announced the camp can now move and set up on city-owned property under the Broadway Bridge in the Pearl District. The deal brokered by Fritz was an effort to head off a pending lawsuit filed by the homeless group as well as resolving $25,000 in city fines racked up by the campers for violating the city’s code. While Fritz may have ended one litigation, she likely triggered another, as the Pearl District Neighborhood Association recently announced that it is prepared to spend $10,000 in association dues to ensure the city follows every city code and process in its effort to grant Right 2 Dream Too campers the right to occupy city property with impunity.

As this seemingly never-ending drama plays out between liberal progressive politicians and activists, the public continues to hear the familiar refrain from homeless advocates that the Portland-Multnomah region sorely lacks enough adequate shelter beds for temporary, transitional housing, residential treatment for addiction and mental health problems, warming shelters, etc. Meanwhile, in North Portland, a $58 million, never used facility sits idle and unused, complete with 525 beds, an industrial kitchen, medical and dental facilities, office space for counseling services and more. It’s time to Occupy Wapato.

The Wapato Debacle

Wapato bunks could be used to house homeless? Photo by Bruce McCain
Wapato bunks could be used to house homeless?
Photo by Bruce McCain

The stigma of the Wapato Facility as an albatross around Multnomah County’s neck is mired in the economics and politics of the mid-to-late 1990’s. In May 1996 (yes, it has been that long) Multnomah County voters approved Measure 26-45, a $79,700,000 bond authorization to finance the construction of public safety facilities and equipment in the county. The bond proceeds were used to build the Children’s Receiving Center, build the Wapato Facility, add a dorm at the Juvenile Justice Complex, add beds at the Multnomah County Inverness Jail (MCIJ) and purchase computer applications for public safety use. It also provided funds to repair or remodel the downtown courthouse, Multnomah County Detention Center (MCDC), and transitional housing facilities. Constructing the Wapato Facility itself consumed $58 million of the $79 million voters approved.

Meanwhile, the State of Oregon was engaged in a prolific expansion of its state prison system. Then-Sheriff Dan Noelle also believed the county would need greatly expanded corrections capacity in the immediate and foreseeable future. But Noelle met stiff resistance from former Multnomah County Chair Bev Stein, who argued that treatment and prevention was more effective than pure incarceration. In a compromise that helped pass the measure, Wapato was presented (and later constructed) as a 525-bed hybrid facility consisting of 300 secure treatment beds and 225 regular jail beds, the difference being primarily module design, security, and operating department. Under the compromise, the county’s Department of Community Justice (DCJ) was to operate the 300 treatment beds, while MCSO Corrections would staff the regular jail beds, with MCSO having overall charge of the correctional facility.

After years of difficult siting issues, Wapato construction finally began in 2002 on an industrial site near Smith and Bybee Lakes in North Portland west of the Expo Center. Construction was completed in 2004, recognized in an anti-climatic “grand opening” in July 2004. The dedication ceremony consisted of former Sheriff Bernie Giusto and others cutting the ceremonial ribbon, followed by locking the doors and leaving – both literally and figuratively, for good. Ever since, Multnomah County taxpayers have spent between $300,000 and $400,000 per year just in maintenance costs to keep the 170,000 square foot facility from falling into complete disrepair before it’s ever used for its intended purpose.

Wapato and Measures 47 and 50

Six months after Multnomah County voters passed Measure 26-45, Oregonians at the November 1996 general election passed Measure 47, a citizen initiative that would have rolled back property taxes (but not assessed values) to 90 percent of the 1995-96 level for each property in the state. In response, the 1997 Oregon legislature referred to the voters, who later approved, Measure 50, which repealed Measure 47, while keeping the former measure’s tax cuts. A complete discussion of Measure 50 is beyond the scope of this article, but the impact on local property taxes was immediate and profound.

Under Measure 50, the objective was to reduce property taxes in 1997-98 and to control their future growth. M50 achieved these goals by cutting the 1997-98 district tax levies, and by making three changes: switching to permanent rates, reducing assessed values, and limiting annual growth of assessed value to 3%. For example, In 1995-96, when the Wapato measure was approved, assessed and real market values of real property were equal, and taxed accordingly. Under M50, for 1997-98, the assessed value of every property was reduced to 90 percent of its 1995-96 assessed value.

The effects of M50 had varying impacts throughout the state because growth in value had not been uniform throughout the state. Properties that had experienced the greatest value growth between 1995-96 and 1997-98 received the greatest cuts in assessed value and consequently, in taxes. For property owners, M50 represented much-needed property tax relief, as did Measure 5 years earlier. But for local governments, including Multnomah County, Measures 47 and 50 resulted in a loss of general fund revenue and all but ensured the Wapato Facility would never be opened.

In many ways, the Wapato Facility became Dan Noelle’s Field of Dreams facility, sold to the public on the promise that “if we build it, the inmates will come.” In the mid-1990’s the economy had recovered from the 1990-91 recession and things were booming, even in Oregon. Many honestly believed that rising property taxes due to ever-increasing home values would easily cover not only the cost of paying off the bonds, but also generate general fund revenue to operate the facility, since the Measure approved by voters was for construction only, and did not include an operating levy. But the boom times of the mid 1990’s were quickly followed by the dot.com bubble burst and the mini-recession in 2000. Coupled with the impact of Measures 47 and 50, the Wapato Facility project was doomed to become a $58 million boondoggle that continues to confound and frustrate elected leaders and taxpayers to this day.

Wapato Options – From Hotel to Casino

In the nearly ten years since Sheriff Giusto cut that ceremonial ribbon commemorating the completion, but not the opening, of the Wapato Facility, political leaders and others have struggled to come up with viable uses for the facility. To his credit, former Multnomah County Chair Ted Wheeler vowed to open Wapato as a correctional facility, even at the expense of closing down jail beds at MCDC, MCIJ or both. But despite his best effort and intentions, Wheeler’s plan proved to be more expensive and less efficient because of the need to replicate corrections services – including transportation, medical, detention and support staff, etc – spread over three disparate facilities instead of just two. In the end, Wheeler’s proposal was never adopted, nor were other piece-meal efforts by the Sheriff and other county leaders to at least partially open Wapato for local correctional use.

MCSO also pitched Wapato to the state’s Department of Corrections for use as a local state prison, particularly for state prisoners in the final year of their sentences to transition back into their local communities. But Wapato was designed and built as a local correctional facility and not a prison – a distinction without a difference to most citizens. But it is a distinction that is real, and which eventually resulted in DOC’s rejection of Wapato as a state prison.

Others have suggested Wapato would make a terrific hotel, casino or combination of both. County officials approached the McMenamin’s, who had previously converted the county’s Troutdale property to a landmark success. But Wapato is no Edgefield, and that idea went nowhere. Wapato has enjoyed some recent success as a filming site for television and motion picture production, but that is analogous to a celebrity athlete or Hollywood star eking out a living signing autographs instead of actually performing their craft. Worse for taxpayers, because of restrictions in the bonds that are not yet retired, the county cannot rent out the facility, and thus charges film crews only the nominal cost of utilities and security, effectively granting film crews free use of a never-used public facility.

The fact remains that Multnomah County tax payers expected and expect the Wapato Facility to be used as a correctional facility. But that expectation is not likely to be realized in the foreseeable future. At the height of Noelle’s tenure as sheriff in 1999-2001, Multnomah County operated five correctional facilities with a capacity of 2,037 inmates. And that did not include Wapato, which was not yet built. Today, the county commissioners give the Sheriff funds to operate only 1,310 jail beds. The downtown MCDC, designed with a capacity of 476, today holds a maximum of 448. The Inverness Jail in Northeast Portland has a capacity of 1,037 inmates. But with three large dorms closed, MCIJ today is capped at 862. If anything, it is clear with MCDC and MCIJ operating below capacity, Wapato will not see a jail inmate inside its walls unless or until one of the two existing jails close for good. Yet ironically, Wapato may provide Multnomah County with the next best thing – a state-of-the-art facility to deliver shelter and services to homeless individuals and families who genuinely desire and deserve the community’s support.

Homeless at Wapato?

The idea of using Wapato as a homeless shelter is not a new idea. In fact, after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf coast in 2005, Sheriff Giusto offered Wapato as shelter for New Orleans refugees who may be headed to Oregon. But the stigma of housing out-of-state refugees – many of whom would likely be African-American – in a jail was too much for Portland’s progressive political class to stomach and the idea was quickly dismissed. But if any facility was optimized for such a function, it is Wapato.

Remember, that a majority of the 525 beds (300) were designed and built as secure treatment beds for clients of the county’s Department of Community Justice. The facility is easily segregated by gender, allowing for female-only dorms. Who knows, perhaps an entire wing could be dedicated as The Jeff Cogen Shelter for Mistreated Women.

Funding such a massive program would require shifting existing resources now spread out over several nonprofit providers to consolidation under one very large roof, perhaps with those NGO’s providing the staffing to deliver those services. Today, Multnomah County alone spends millions of federal, state and local dollars providing services to the county’s homeless population. Yet we continue to hear complaints that there is not enough beds and facilities to meet the need of the growing homeless population.

County Homeless Expenditures

Multnomah County’s Department of County Human Services (DCHS) is the primary provider of service to the county’s vulnerable population, including the homeless. For FY2014 DCHS has a budget of more than $222 million dollars and 700 employees. By comparison, the budget for the Sheriff’s Office is $122 million with 776 employees. DCHS funding consists of federal and state pass-through dollars, combined with local general fund revenue from property taxes. And the money spent on homelessness is far from insubstantial. The county’s FY2014 Adopted Budget is replete with program after program seeking to address homeless issues. Most of those programs are administered by DCHS’ Community Services Division, with a total division budget of $33,415,819. Examples of homeless programs include:

Progam Name                                                                                                   FY2014 Budget

Homeless Families Shelter & Emergency Services (HFSES)                     $1,301,226

HFSES – Expanded East County Outreach                                                   $60,000

HFSES – Coordinated Entry for Homeless Families                                    $390,000

HFSES – Coordinated Entry for Homeless Families – OTO                       $610,000

Homeless Benefit Recovery Project (HBR)                                                   $420,551

Housing Stabilization for Vulnerable Populations (HSVP)                          $3,606,894

HSVP – Short-Term Rent Assistance                                                            $1,500,000

HSVP – Streetroots                                                                                           $40,000

HSVP – Flex Funds for Veterans                                                                    $30,000

Facility Based Transitional Housing                                                               $238,009

CSEC – Shelter, Housing, and Assertive Engagement                                 $429,450

Homeless Youth System (HYS)                                                                      $4,172,600

HYS – MH and Addictions Engagement Services                                         $471,000

Runaway Youth Services (RYS)                                                                      $821,391

RYS – Maintain Current Service Level                                                           $161,132

Anti-Poverty Services (AP)                                                                              $2,267,172

These DCHS Community Services Division programs do not include many related programs operated by the Mental Health and Addiction Services Division, which has a total budget of $99,716,689 for FY2014. For example, MHASD will spend more than $10 million in FY2014 to provide mental health residential services for individuals with a severe mental illness that require care in a 24-hour-a-day setting. To meet that need, the county contracts with licensed caregivers to provide mental health and social services in structured housing for adults with severe and persistent mental illness. The county will contract for a total of 382 such beds in 2014. But rather than have all of most of those beds in one modern facility, those 382 mental health beds are scattered among 64 separate facilities or homes.

Is There the Political Will for Wapato?

In December 2004, five months after Wapato was completed, the City of Portland and Multnomah County jointly published a 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness, an initiative to end homelessness in the city and county by 2015. While this laudable – and now laughable – goal seems hopelessly out of reach in late 2013, the Plan points to problems with our current approach which an operational Wapato facility could help address. The Plan consistently pointed to the lack of housing of all types, whether emergency shelters, transitional housing, or treatment beds. Wapato could fill any or all of those needs.

One particular issue bears directly on a function for Wapato in connection with the county’s overall jail system. One of the Plan’s Nine Actions to End Homelessness is to stop discharging homeless jail inmates and hospital patients “into the streets” without linking those individuals to available services. If Wapato were up and running as a homeless service provider, a discharged jail inmate could voluntarily elect to stay at Wapato rather than on a park bench, in a business doorway or under a bridge, where they are far more likely to engage in behavior that leads to additional police contact – thus perpetuating a very expensive and destructive cycle.

As shown in the county’s adopted budget, there are tens of millions of dollars available to spend on the homeless and on those with mental health and addiction problems. Today those tax dollars are scattered across a patchwork network of nonprofit providers who need those public monies to survive. Injecting Wapato into that equation is bound to ignite some inevitable turf wars and self-protection battles. Also, as noted with the Katrina issue, city and county leaders are likely to reject the appearance of institutionalization of the homeless at Wapato, even if those receiving shelter and services are participating voluntarily, as with current programs.

The key to making Wapato work for the homeless is a simple carrot-and-stick approach. Most will agree that among those camping illegally in Portland and surrounding areas are two broad groups of people: those who are truly down on their luck, who have lost their job in this dismal economy and need their neighbors’ temporary help to get back on their feet; and those pit-bull toting “road warriors” and similar scoflaws who choose to camp where they want, when they want and have little or no desire to do otherwise. Portland in particular has encouraged the latter while claiming to help the former.

It’s time for some tough love in the City of Roses. When a person is found illegally camping on public property, the police officer should politely and compassionately offer that person two distinct choices if the camper doesn’t move: a citation or arrest for illegally camping, perhaps accompanied by a free ride in handcuffs to MCDC; or a free ride to Wapato where the person can get a hot meal, a warm and dry bed out of the elements, medical, dental and other services, and the freedom to stay or leave when they want.

Or we can wait until the Wapato bonds are paid off in 2016, cut our collective losses and sell the place to the highest bidder while city and county officials wonder what went wrong with their 10-year plan to end homelessness by 2015.