Cowlitz County commissioners Tuesday were split on whether to consider an agreement with the city of Longview to fund its HOPE Village pallet home program on Alabama Street.
The decision on whether to officially add the topic to a future meeting agenda was left to Commissioners Dennis Weber and Arne Mortensen, after John Jabusch said he wouldn’t vote on it and left Tuesday’s meeting early.
The agreement wasn’t on Tuesday’s agenda, but the board heard about three hours of public comment from more than 30 citizens, both in support and opposition of the county funding the project.
At an afternoon workshop, the commissioners directed staff to circle back in a couple weeks after Jabusch’s replacement, Rick Dahl, is sworn in next Wednesday.
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The pallet home community will replace the long-running homeless encampment on Alabama Street, established by the city of Longview in late 2019. After the county rejected the sole proposal they received for a hosted site in June and an emergency declaration was made for the camp, Longview staff and councilmembers began working to set up their own hosted plan.
Last month, the city contracted with Salvation Army to run the site for an amount not to exceed $1.4 million. The purchase of pallet homes and site construction cost about $1.15 million.
On Thursday, the Longview City Council voted 6-1 to send the interlocal agreement to the commissioners, asking the county to help fund the HOPE Village program through document recording fees, required to be spent on affordable housing and homeless programs.
Weber said last week he tentatively added the agreement to Tuesday’s agenda but Mortensen asked to remove it during regular review. At least two commissioners need to agree to add an item to a Tuesday or workshop meeting agenda, he said.
Giving examples of past successful controversial projects, such as the severe weather shelter and a public shooting range, Weber said there’s reason to at least put the agreement on the agenda to hear a presentation and further discussion.
Weber said any plan he supports has to be well managed, get rid of lawbreakers and help those falling through the cracks, particularly people with severe behavioral health problems.
“Of everything else considered, this pallet village, in my view, comes the closest to separating those who we don’t owe anything to from those we can actually help,” he said.
When asked, Mortensen said he didn’t want to put the agreement on a workshop agenda for next week. He said the pallet home project isn’t cost-efficient, the government interferes with neighbors helping neighbors, and there were “significant issues” with the process of the interlocal agreement.
Mortensen said the county needs to work on a better long-term solution.
“In this case, we’re told, ‘This is the solution,’ and there’s the expectation if you discuss (it) that there will be, at the end, a thumbs up or thumbs down vote,” he said. “But it’s way too premature for that.”
Earlier in the meeting, Jabusch, who lost the election to retain his seat, said he would not vote on the HOPE Village project for several reasons.
“When the voters got a chance to weigh in, they chose Rick (Dahl),” he said. “The Alabama homeless camp was a weekly topic at our BOCC meetings and Rick made it apparent he wasn’t supportive, at least for now, of the camp.”
Although he supports Longview’s plan, Jabusch’s vote on it would be overturned, he said. The large-scale agreement needs to go through the process, and supporters of the project need to convince Dahl to support it, he said.
“I believe Rick is taking on this job with all the best intentions of doing what’s best for Cowlitz County,” Jabusch said. “Give him a chance. Reach out to him. Talk to him. Let him know how you feel about it.”
Dahl told TDN, from what he’s seen of the agreement, he can’t support it, in part because it doesn’t make economic sense. The pallet home program will likely work for those who want help, which is something existing programs already do, he said.
Before deciding on bringing the agreement to a workshop, Dahl wants the county’s legal team to review it and make sure it fits the guidelines for document recording fees, he said.
The Cowlitz County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has drafted its own version of the agreement, said Gena James, county Health and Human Services deputy director, during the afternoon workshop. It wasn’t immediately clear what the differences between the two documents were.
Mortensen said details of the agreement would need to be ironed out, and the board needs to wait for Dahl to make a decision.
During public comment Tuesday morning, Longview City Manager Kurt Sacha gave some details about the project and asked the county to help fund it.
When fully operational, the site will include 50 pallet homes, communal bathrooms, laundry facilities, 24/7 staffing and security, case management, a good-neighbor agreement and code of conduct, he said.
The Salvation Army would give the city monthly reports based on several metrics, including percent of people exiting into permanent housing, 911 calls from the site and neighbors, and how many people return to homelessness, Sacha said.
Acknowledging the site isn’t perfect, several others encouraged the commissioners to fund it as a step forward.
“We need a managed homeless encampment because our citizens can’t afford to sleep inside, and those who are forced to sleep outside need safety and management so they aren’t victim to the craziness that can go on,” said Rev. Kathleen Patton, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. “We have the funds to do it. ... We’re waiting for you to set those funds free.”
Other citizens spoke in opposition of the project and the city’s approach, and asked the county not to help fund it.
Longview resident Randy Knox said numerous people, many residents of the Highlands neighborhood, are against this project.
“They’re not in opposition because they don’t want to help the homeless. They’re in opposition because of what is going on in their neighborhoods,” he said. “I don’t see where any new amount of money is going to change that. It’s going to further that.”
Volunteers and Longview city staff set up the pallet homes last week, with a goal of accepting residents in early December.