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Oregon Gov-elect Kotek hears about housing, health, education needs on first tour stop – Oregon Capital Chronicle

McMINNVILLE– Gov.-elect Tina Kotek launched a 36-county listening tour in Yamhill County on Wednesday, hearing from leaders at a community clinic, preschool and local government office that they need money, trained workers and more homes. 

Kotek’s visit to McMinnville was the first of a planned statewide tour over the next year, focused on improving the state’s handling of behavioral health, education and housing. She plans to visit Douglas County by mid-January. 

“It’s always good to be reminded how much energy and expertise there is at the local level,” Kotek said. “They know what they need. And I knew that folks in Yamhill County were working well together, but I’m still impressed by the level of coordination and collaboration. Everybody’s working together.”

Community leaders in Yamhill County described the same stresses that affect communities throughout Oregon. There aren’t enough people working in behavioral health care or early childhood education to meet the community’s needs. And there aren’t enough homes, especially affordable homes, to house the people already in the county, let alone the additional workers needed.

These problems don’t have quick fixes, as it takes time to train educators or health professionals and build new homes. The state also faces a nearly $560 million funding gap, according to legislative budget analysts, meaning state officials need to either cut budgets or find a way to bring in more money. 

Kotek said she’s analyzing ways to save money in the existing budget, and she doesn’t intend to introduce many new programs in the two-year budget proposal she’ll send to the Legislature by Feb. 1. 

“When people are coming in with brand new ideas, I’m asking a lot of questions,” she said. “Do we really need this? Is this the priority? Because if you do this, it takes up the capacity of the agencies to do it; it takes new dollars we might have to take from somewhere else.”

Kotek started her day at the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center’s McMinnville clinic. The center, named for a 6-year-old daughter of migrant farmworkers who died of an untreated infected cut on her foot in 1975, serves nearly 52,000 patients annually in Yamhill and Washington counties. 

The center uses social care navigators, people who work in clinics and help patients access resources. Many of those workers received medical care at Virginia Garcia as children and chose to work there as adults, but they can’t advance in their careers without going back to school to obtain a higher degree. 

The center also partners with Pacific University, meaning faculty will bring students to work in community health centers. It’s helpful to have students working, Chief Medical Officer Laura Byerly said, but those students often end up working elsewhere after graduation because they need higher-paying jobs to repay their student loans. 

Byerly said state incentives, such as loan repayment, that could encourage people to work at community health centers would help with staffing. 

Gov.-elect Tina Kotek, participates in a conversation about behavioral health at the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center in McMinnville.
Gov.-elect Tina Kotek, participates in a conversation about behavioral health at the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center in McMinnville. (Julia Shumway/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

New money provided by Measure 110, the voter-approved 2020 law that decriminalized possession of small amounts of illicit drugs and allocated millions of dollars to increasing addiction services, made it possible to hire behavioral health workers, said Kimberly Wilcox, the center’s behavioral and mental health clinical director, but it’s hard to fill those open positions. Only about half of the center’s positions are filled, and it can sometimes go a month without receiving applications. 

Virginia Garcia wants to hire providers who are bilingual and people of color, which further shrinks the pool of applicants. That’s especially true in its rural centers in Newberg and McMinnville, she said. 

“It’s really important to us to really be able to hire and have working for us people who look like and speak 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 care can take months. Primary care providers can help manage psychiatric medication, Byerly said, but they’re not well-trained in that kind of care and it takes away from being able to provide services. 

“The more specialty care of any kind you drive into primary care, the number of people you can do primary care for decreases,” Byerly said. “The more people you take who need more than three visits per year, the less people you can take care of.”

Gov.-elect Tina Kotek, reacts as Suey Linzmeier, executive director of Head Start of Yamhill County, tells her that preschoolers didn't know how to use playground equipment.
Gov.-elect Tina Kotek, reacts as Suey Linzmeier, executive director of Head Start of Yamhill County, tells her that preschoolers didn’t know how to use playground equipment. (Julia Shumway/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

At the Head Start of Yamhill County later on Wednesday, Kotek heard how a shortage of early childhood educators makes it difficult to serve children. The facility, which serves children from birth to age 5, has enough funding for 17 classes, but it only has the staff for 12, Executive Director Suey Linzmeier said. 

Linzmeier said early childhood providers are also dealing with unexpected repercussions of the COVID pandemic. Playgrounds closed for months early in the pandemic, and some children showed up at Head Start not knowing how to use equipment like slides. Educators of young children are spending more time working on motor skills than they did with pre-pandemic classes. 

And in a meeting with local government leaders and housing providers, Kotek heard about the housing crisis that affects every portion of the state. Oregon has about 110,000 fewer homes than necessary to house the state’s current residents, and the state population is expected to continue growing. 

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’s skeptical of the per capita allocations, as communities have different needs and some are more prepared than others to use new state funding. For instance, Yamhill County in 2020 received $1.5 million to open two navigation centers for the unhoused, which include shelter beds and access to basic needs such as showers, food and laundry, because the county could quickly provide those services. 

McMinnville Community Development Director Heather Richards said cities including McMinnville and Newberg fall into cracks when it comes to qualifying for some housing grants. They’re too big for rural programs, which cap out at populations of 25,000, but they’re not big enough to be competitive with larger cities. 

The city will again seek a pilot project or statewide policy change for inclusionary zoning. State law now permits cities, including Portland, to require that new apartment buildings with 20 or more units set rents at prices affordable for families making less than 80% of the median income in the area. 

That law is too narrow for smaller cities like McMinnville, where developers are more likely to build apartment complexes of several buildings 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 Kotek spearheaded to turn unused motels and other spaces into homeless shelters, has helped. Local communities have programs in place to help people get into shelters and back on their feet, she said, but they need space. 

“Give us a space, this community can do it,” Hendgen said.