McMINNVILLE – Gov.-elect Tina Kotek kicked off a 36-county listening tour in Yamhill County Wednesday, hearing from community clinic, preschool and local government leaders that they need money, trained workers and more homes.
Kotek’s visit to McMinnville was the first of a planned statewide tour next year focused on improving the state’s management of behavioral health, education and housing. She plans to visit Douglas County by mid-January.
“It’s always good to remind ourselves how much energy and experience there is locally,” Kotek said. “They know what they need. I knew the people of Yamhill County worked well together, but I am still impressed with the level of coordination and cooperation. Everyone works together.”
Community leaders in Yamhill County describe the same stresses affecting communities across Oregon. There are not enough people working in behavioral health or early childhood education to meet the needs of the community. And there aren’t enough homes, especially affordable housing, to house the people already in the county, let alone the additional workers needed.
These problems have no quick solutions, as it takes time to train educators or health professionals and build new homes. The state also faces a funding shortfall of nearly $560 million, according to legislative budget analysts, meaning state officials must either cut budgets or find a way to bring in more money.
Kotek said he is analyzing ways to save money in the existing budget and does not intend to introduce many new programs in the biennial budget proposal he will send to the Legislature by Feb. 1.
“When people come up with brand new ideas, I ask a lot of questions,” she said. “Do we really need this? Is that the priority? Because if you do that, it takes away the capacity of agencies to do that; it takes new dollars that we might have to get from somewhere else.
Kotek began her day at Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center’s McMinnville Clinic. The center, named for the 6-year-old daughter of migrant farm workers who died of an untreated infected leg wound in 1975, serves nearly 52,000 patients a year in Yamhill and Washington counties.
The center uses social navigators, people who work in clinics and help patients access resources. Many of these workers received medical care in Virginia Garcia as children and chose to work there as adults, but could not advance their careers without going back to school to earn an advanced degree.
The center also partners with the University of the Pacific, meaning faculty will bring students to work in community health centers. It’s helpful to have students who work, Chief Medical Officer Laura Byerly said, but those students often end up working elsewhere after graduation because they need better-paying jobs to pay off their student loans.
Byerly said state incentives, such as loan repayments, that could encourage people to work at community health centers would help with staffing.
New money provided by Measure 110, the voter-approved 2020 law that decriminalized possession of small amounts of illegal drugs and allocated millions of dollars to increase addiction services, made the hiring of behavioral health workers possible, said Kimberly Wilcox, behavioral and mental health specialist in the center health clinical director, but it is difficult to fill these open positions. Only about half of the positions at the center are filled, and sometimes an entire month can go by without applications being accepted.
Virginia Garcia wants to hire providers who are bilingual and people of color, further narrowing the pool of applicants. That’s especially true in the rural centers of Newberg and McMinnville, she said.
“It’s really important for us to really be able to hire and have people working for us who look and talk like our patients,” she said.
The organization employs one psychiatric nurse practitioner in Washington County, but getting services for people with severe mental illness who need psychiatric help can take months. Primary care providers can help manage psychiatric medications, Byerly said, but they are not well trained in this type of care, and it takes away from the ability to provide services.
“The more specialty care of any kind you put into primary care, the number of people you can provide primary care goes down,” Byerly said. “The more people you get who need more than three visits a year, the less people you can care for.”
At the Yamhill County Commencement later Wednesday, Kotek heard how a shortage of early childhood educators is making it difficult to serve children. The facility, which serves children from birth to age 5, has enough funds for 17 classrooms but only has staff for 12, said executive director Sue Linzmeier.
Linzmeier said early childhood providers are also dealing with the unexpected consequences of the COVID pandemic. Playgrounds were closed for months at the start of the pandemic, and some children showed up at Head Start without knowing how to use equipment like slides. Educators of young children are spending more time working on motor skills than in pre-pandemic classes.
And meeting with local government leaders and housing providers, Kotek heard about the housing crisis affecting every part of the state. Oregon is about 110,000 homes short of what is needed to house the state’s current residents, and the state’s population is expected to continue to grow.
The city of McMinnville plans to seek about $10 million in state funding during the next legislative session for housing, including $1.3 million as part of a plan proposed by the Oregon Mayors Association. That request is based on a per capita amount of $40 per city resident, costing the state more than $123 million annually.
Kotek said she is skeptical of the per capita allocation because communities have different needs and some are more ready than others to use new state funding. For example, in 2020, Yamhill County received $1.5 million to open two homeless navigation centers that include shelter beds and access to basic needs such as showers, food and laundry because the county can quickly provide these services.
McMinnville Community Development Director Heather Richards said towns including McMinnville and Newberg are falling through the cracks when it comes to qualifying for some housing subsidies. They are too large for rural programs, which are limited to a population of 25,000, but not large enough to compete with larger cities.
The city will again seek a pilot project or statewide policy change for inclusionary zoning. State law now allows cities, including Portland, to require new apartment buildings with 20 or more units to set rents at prices affordable to families making less than 80 percent of the area median income.
That law is too narrow for smaller cities like McMinnville, where developers are more likely to build multi-building apartment complexes with fewer units per building, Richards said.
“Developers are building for higher income households,” she said. “That’s where their margins are.”
Alexandra Hendgen, executive director of the Yamhill Community Action Partnership, said recent state funding through Project Turnkey, a program spearheaded by Kotek to convert unused motels and other spaces into homeless shelters, has helped. Local communities have programs to help people get into shelters and get back on their feet, she said, but they need space.
“Give us space, this community can do it,” Hendgen said.