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Douglas County Commissioner Tom Kress talks about his work behind the scenes

Tom Kress, chosen this month to chair the Douglas County Board of Commissioners, is perhaps the least known of the three county commissioners.

And he likes it that way.

“I’m pretty comfortable being behind the scenes,” he said.

Kress is the owner of Waldron’s Outdoor Sports in Roseburg. He joined the commission in 2019, filling the spot that Gary Leif had held before being chosen to represent House District 2 in the state Legislature.

Since he’s been in office, the county has faced three emergencies — the “snowmageddon” storm of 2019, the Archie Creek Fire and COVID-19 — but county spokesperson Tamara Howell said Kress has remained a calm and steady presence at the Douglas County Courthouse.

While the other commissioners have specialized in more visible — and sometimes controversial — issues like timber laws, COVID-19 response and economic development, Kress has preferred to focus on two areas with which he has lots of experience: money management and customer service.

Kress grew up in Roseburg and said he’s lived and worked in Douglas County for nearly all his life. He married a local woman, Sasha Kress, who is from Glide. They were married in the courtyard of the courthouse by then-county clerk Doris Wadsworth and raised three kids in town. Two have become foresters, and one is a nurse.

“I’ve worked really hard my whole life to stay right here because it’s just a special place. I’ve always felt that way,” Kress said.

After attending the University of Oregon, he returned home and worked with his father Leonard Kress at the family’s auto parts store, Kress Backen Auto Supply, until 2000. By that time, it had become a seven-store chain and they sold it to the Carquest Auto Parts corporation.

For a year, Kress and his family moved to Georgetown, Kentucky to work for Carquest’s Lexington, Kentucky office as a finance director.

But Kress worried that if his kids would graduate there they’d want to remain.

So he and family friends, John and David Backen, who had also been partners in the auto parts store, purchased Waldron’s Outdoor Sports in 2001 and the Kress family returned home.

Kress said he likes having an outdoor sports business even more than the auto parts business because it’s still working retail, which he enjoys, and because he loves outdoor sports like hiking, biking, canoeing, kayaking and archery.

“Sporting goods is all about making somebody’s adventure better,” he said.

He said it was his love for Douglas County that drew him to the commissioner position.

He could see that the county was in financial trouble and thought he could help.

“I actually like working with numbers and Excel spreadsheets and financial statements. I take a pretty deep dive into everybody’s budget and we get right down to the weeds,” he said.

Kress oversees the solid waste department, which has dealt with shifting Department of Enviromental Quality requirements that can have big budget impacts.

Landfill closing costs of the future, for example, have to be saved for today. An administrative rule change midstream this fiscal year changed the county’s mandatory annual contribution from $450,000 to $1.2 million.

“That’s a horrible hit to us,” Kress said.

Kress is also overseeing a number of improvement projects, including financing major capital expenses for a landfill leachate treatment facility and stormwater runoff projects. And he’s worked to bring glass and can recycling back.

Kress said the county’s financial position has improved.

“The financial cliff that this county was looking at a few years ago, while it still looms there our glide slope is much flatter than it was,” he said.

With his business background, Kress said he’s focused on the idea that the county can provide good customer service.

After more than 100 homes were destroyed by the Archie Creek Fire, Kress asked staff members to research ahead of time and be ready for the planning permits and reassessments that would inevitably follow, for example.

But even on ordinary days, people coming in seeking planning permits or other assistance from the county should be valued and treated like customers, he said.

“I think the staff has really warmed up to that. I think people naturally want to be that way. They want to be friendly,” he said.

“My motto in our departments is how do we say yes, yes we can do that,” he said.

12 new COVID-19 cases as more healthcare facilities join weekly outbreak list

The Douglas County COVID-19 Response Team reported 12 new cases Thursday.

There were no new deaths reported.

Ten county residents are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, six locally and four out of the area.

Two more local health care facilities joined the Oregon Health Authority’s weekly outbreak list this week.

Aviva Health has eight cases, according to the Wednesday report, and South River Community Health Center has five cases.

CHI Mercy Medical Center’s outbreak had no new cases this week, remaining at 66 total.

The Landing a Senior Living Community’s outbreak had no new cases this week, standing firm at six cases.

Many local nursing homes have been hit with outbreaks during the course of the pandemic, but the others are listed as resolved. Among those resolved cases are large outbreaks that had hit Curry Manor Memory Care in Roseburg and Forest Hill Assisted Living, formerly Forest Glen, in Canyonville.

Other nursing homes with smaller resolved outbreaks are Umpqua Valley Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, Riverview Terrace, Timber Town and Rose Haven Nursing Center.

There were no new outbreaks at local schools listed in this week’s outbreak report.

One of the biggest sources of outbreaks in Douglas County has been churches, but those churches are not included in the state’s outbreak reports.

The Douglas County COVID-19 Response Team has not named the churches involved, but said earlier this week that one-third of the new cases in the past two weeks were linked to outbreaks at two local churches.

Douglas Public Health Network is supporting 729 people, 146 in isolation because they have the disease and 583 in quarantine because they’ve been in contact with an infected person.

Many of those in quarantine have been linked to several local school outbreaks, the response team said. However, a single case involving a student, staff member or volunteer is enough to list an outbreak as connected to a school.

Current school outbreaks in this week’s report from the state include one student and one staff member or volunteer at Oakland High School, two staff members or volunteers at Jo Lane Middle School in Roseburg, one staff member or volunteer at North Douglas Elementary School in Drain, three students and two staff members or volunteers at East Sutherlin Primary School, and two staff members or volunteers at Myrtle Creek Elementary School.

Democrats to 'act big' on $1.9T aid; GOP wants plan split

WASHINGTON — Democrats in Congress and the White House have rejected a Republican pitch to split President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue plan into smaller chunks, with lawmakers appearing primed to muscle the sweeping economic and virus aid forward without GOP help.

Despite Biden’s calls for unity, Democrats said the stubbornly high unemployment numbers and battered U.S. economy leave them unwilling to waste time courting Republican support that might not materialize. They also don’t want to curb the size and scope of a package that they say will provide desperately needed money to distribute the vaccine, reopen schools and send cash to American households and businesses.

Biden has been appealing directly to Republican and Democratic lawmakers while signaling his priority to press ahead.

“We’ve got a lot to do, and the first thing we’ve got to do is get this COVID package passed,” Biden said Thursday in the Oval Office.

The standoff over Biden’s first legislative priority is turning the new rescue plan into a political test — of his new administration, of Democratic control of Congress and of the role of Republicans in a post-Trump political landscape.

Success would give Biden a signature accomplishment in his first 100 days in office, unleashing $400 billion to expand vaccinations and to reopen schools, $1,400 direct payments to households, and other priorities, including a gradual increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. Failure would be a high-profile setback early in his presidency.

Democrats in the House and Senate are operating as though they know they are on borrowed time. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are laying the groundwork to start the go-it-alone approach as soon as next week.

They are drafting a budget reconciliation bill that would start the process to pass the relief package with a simple 51-vote Senate majority — rather than the 60-vote threshold typically needed in the Senate to advance legislation. The goal would be passage by March, when jobless benefits, housing assistance and other aid is set to expire.

Schumer said he drew from Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s advice to “act big” to weather the COVID-19 economic crisis.

“Everywhere you look, alarm bells are ringing,” Schumer said from the Senate floor.

Senate Republicans in a bipartisan group warned their colleagues in a “frank” conversation late Wednesday that Biden and Democrats are making a mistake by loading up the aid bill with other priorities and jamming it through Congress without their support, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private session.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a former White House budget director under George W. Bush, wants a deeper accounting of what funds remain from the $900 billion coronavirus aid package from December.

“Literally, the money has not gone out the door,” he said. “I’m not sure I understand why there’s a grave emergency right now.”

Biden spoke directly with Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who is leading the bipartisan effort with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., that is racing to strike a compromise.

Collins said she and the president had a “good conversation.”

“We both expressed our shared belief that it is possible for the Senate to work in a bipartisan way to get things done for the people of this country,” she said.

The emerging debate is highly reminiscent of the partisan divide over the 2009 financial rescue in the early months of the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president, echoing those battles over the appropriate level of government intervention.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that although Biden wants a bipartisan package, the administration is opposed to breaking it up to win Republican support.

“We’re open for business and open to hear from members of Congress on that,” she said, noting that lawmakers are not “wallflowers.”

But, she said, “we’re not going to do this in a piecemeal way or break apart a big package that’s meant to address the crisis we’re facing.”

On Thursday, more than 120 economists and policymakers signed a letter in support of Biden’s package, saying the $900 billion that Congress approved in December before he took office was “too little and too late to address the enormity of the deteriorating situation.”

Employers shed workers in December, retail sales have slumped and COVID-19 deaths kept rising. More than 430,000 people in the U.S. have died from the coronavirus as of Thursday.

At the same time, the number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits remained at a historically high 847,000 last week, and a new report said the U.S. economy shrunk by an alarming 3.5% last year.

“The risks of going too small dramatically outweigh the risks of going too big,” said Gene Sperling, a former director of the White House National Economic Council, who signed the letter.

The government reported Thursday that the economy showed dangerous signs of stalling in the final three months of last year, ultimately shrinking in size by 3.5% for the whole of 2020 — the sharpest downturn since the demobilization that followed the end of World War II.

The decline was not as severe as initially feared, largely because the government has steered roughly $4 trillion in aid, an unprecedented emergency expenditure, to keep millions of Americans housed, fed, employed and able to pay down debt and build savings amid the crisis.

Republican allies touted the 4% annualized growth during the last quarter, with economic analyst Stephen Moore calling the gains “amazing.”

Republicans have also raised concerns about adding to the deficit, which skyrocketed in the Trump administration.

Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the third-ranking party leader, said Biden should stick to the call for unity he outlined in his inaugural address, particularly with the evenly split Senate. “If there’s ever been a mandate to move to the middle, it’s this,” he said. “It’s not let’s just go off the cliff.”

But Democrats argue that low interest rates make the debt manageable and that the possibility of returning to work will do more to improve people’s well-being.

The days and weeks ahead, against the backdrop of Trump’s impeachment trial on a charge of inciting an insurrection with the U.S. Capitol siege, will set the tone, tenor and parameters of what will be possible in Washington.