Commission candidates talk housing, economics

On Tuesday, Oct. 16, the Cottage Grove Area Chamber of Commerce Legislative Committee hosted its second candidate forum of the year, hosting Gary Williams and Heather Buch as the pair race toward election day and a chair on the Lane County Commission. 

The evening was scheduled to include questions pre-selected by the legislative committee as well as audience questioned bookmarked by the candidates’ opening and closing statements and was live streamed on Facebook. Both Williams and Buch applied for the position of East Lane Commissioner when former commissioner Faye Stewart resigned his post prior to the finish of his term to take a job with the city of Cottage Grove has the head of its newly combined planning and development department. Williams was appointed to the seat to finish out Stewart’s term. 

Buch, a small business owner and military spouse, fielded the first question asking candidates what they thought of using tax incentives to increase economic development. 

“I think there’s a time and a place for incentive programs depending on the issue,” she said. “It’s specific for me, issue by issue.” 

Williams, born and raised in Cottage Grove where he served as mayor for 12 years, said, “To create housing, to create jobs, to create economic development several things need to exist. One is we need to be able to partner with different people and businesses.” He cited an instance of moving System Development Charges (SDC fees) to the back end of the construction process to help foster the building of new homes. 

The topic of homes ranging from affordable housing and homeless were also addressed during the forum with the legislative committee crafting questions concerning both. When asked how they plan to combat homelessness, Williams called it a “humanitarian crisis” and said it was a priority for the county. “We need public/private partnerships,” he said, noting the construction of the Corey Commons in Cottage Grove for low-income renters. “Go back and talk to those folks who were concerned (about low-income neighbors) they have no concerns now.”

Buch said a lack of housing pushed people who were living paycheck-to-paycheck from making rent onto the streets. “The working poor can’t afford rent,” she said. “It’s not only the morally right thing to do (addressing homelessness) but fiscally right,” she noted the “frequent flyers” who routinely use expensive county resources and services to alleviate symptoms generated by being homeless.

On the issue of roads, Buch said that after knocking on 10,000 doors around the county and living in unincorporated Lane County, she had learned about the process of road maintenance. She said she had met retired road workers who told her they felt roads were improperly identified for maintenance and in one instance, by the time a worker had rounded back to a road he initially completed maintenance work on three years prior, it was in need of repair. “It’s good to have the funding but it’s also good to make sure we’re identifying the right roads at the right time.” 

Williams cited the infrastructure package passed by the most recent legislative session at the state level that gave funds to counties to improve infrastructure. He said repairs would continue with the state funds. 

The candidates also touched on capacity-related releases from the Lane County jail. Voters recently passed a levy allowing for an expansion of bed capacity in the facility—a levy Williams co-chaired. However, the legislative committee contended that the county is still operating with a shortage of deputies. Both candidates noted that more deputies would require more money. Williams referred to nearby communities that had taxed themselves to provide police services. 

“Where I live, I rely solely on the sheriff and volunteer emergency patrols,” Buch said. “It really comes down to an honest conversation with ourselves on what we’re willing to pay for and how.” 

Audience questions ranged from climate change to transportation. Candidates were asked how they planned to move Lane County away from a timber-based economy. 

Buch said she didn’t think it was practical to move completely away from the industry but noted that economic diversity would expand the tax base and that she would focus on helping communities utilize their resources to broaden their local businesses. She noted an opportunity in Cottage Grove would be the community’s agriculture business that often shipped to Portland. 

“I’m puzzled why a community founded on timber would want to move away from it,” Williams replied. He said he believed there were still opportunities in timber and he also believed an increase in the harvest of public land was coming due to new federal policies. 

Speaking on health care, Buch said it was important to promote small clinics in rural areas. 

“Sometimes people won’t go until they call an ambulance, one of our most expensive services,” she said. “In Oakridge they have a part time clinic but no dentist, no optometrist, they have to travel a long way,” she said. She went on to call for more nurses in schools and mobile clinics citing the availability of federal and private funding. 

Williams said service was limited in rural areas and said having public/private partnerships would help mitigate the problem.

Both candidates said they were against the recent pay raise the commission voted on to give themselves and neither candidate would support a sales tax. 

The Nov. 6 general election will decide the winner of the East Lane County Commission seat after no candidate running in the May primary managed to get more than 50 percent of the vote. 

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