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City, county governments in Douglas County will receive millions from American Rescue Plan

The governments of local cities and the county are about to receive millions in funding from the latest federal COVID-19 stimulus package.

But nobody knows yet just what they’ll be allowed to do with the money.

City and county government leaders told us they’re waiting for guidelines from the federal government, but they’ve got some ideas about how they hope they can spend the dollars.

The American Rescue Plan, the COVID-19 stimulus package that was passed by Congress this year, is perhaps best known for the $1,400 relief checks it will send to individuals.

But another feature of the plan is that local governments, too, will receive funds. Cities and counties across the nation are expecting payments.

In Douglas County, all 12 cities will receive payments, ranging from $40,000 for Elkton on the low end to $4.79 million for Roseburg on the high end.

Douglas County government is set to receive $21.52 million.

The payments will come in two installments, one this year and one next year.

Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman said as the Local Public Health Authority, the county’s first responsibility is to make sure public health needs are met.

And that means taking care of the pandemic response is the top priority he will recommend for the payments the county will receive from the package.

Freeman said it has cost the county millions of dollars to oversee the pandemic response here.

“Nobody else can do that. No other group. The Oregon Health Authority is not here in Douglas County doing public health response. We are responsible for that. We are paying for that,” he said.

The county contracts and pays for the services of the private nonprofit Douglas Public Health Network, which boosted its team from about six employees to about 40. The network brought on epidemiologists to track cases and try to prevent the disease’s spread as well as support staff to take care of the needs of county residents who remained in quarantine after exposure to the virus.

The county also pays for the vaccine clinics, including mass clinics at the Douglas County Fairgrounds and pop-up clinics in rural areas.

And the pandemic isn’t over yet. Freeman said he would like to see some of the stimulus package funds saved to deal with future challenges the pandemic could bring, and for unforeseen emergencies that could come up in the future.

He said his third priority would be to replace revenue that was lost as the county continued to maintain its other services at the level they were before the pandemic.

Roseburg City Manager Nikki Messenger said she hopes the city will be able to use the money for economic development.

“It’s super exciting. The possibilities feel endless right now. That’s why we’re waiting for the rules to get that reined in so we can see what fits,” she said.

Items at the top of her wish list would include a sobering center, sustainable funding for the three-year-old mobile crisis unit and the proposed med ed college.

For Roseburg, with an annual general fund budget of $27 million, $4.79 million over two years is a substantial boost, about six times the $770,000 it received from the CARES Act stimulus funding.

Mark Bauer, city manager of Winston, said when he learned his city was to receive $1.12 million, it was a relief. It’s money that will make a big difference in a town whose general fund budget is about $2.5 million a year.

“It was one of those ‘Yahoo’ moments,” he said.

One thing he’d like to see the money spent on is software to manage the city’s website. He also wants some new software to support the court system to enable better communication with customers.

Myrtle Creek City Manager Sean Negherbon said the city has a list of ideas for how it might like to spend its $710,000.

One possibility is to install a splash pad at the city pool.

“It’s a pretty good-sized chunk of change, so it could definitely pay for that splash pad and then have some left over,” he said.

It was an abnormal year for the kids, he said, and it would be nice to do something for them to help make up for it.

Still, like the other governments, Myrtle Creek doesn’t yet know what it can do with the money.

“We have not received any official guidance at all on how it can be spent. So we’re playing it by ear,” he said.

Here’s how much each city and county government in Douglas County is expected to receive:

  • Douglas County: $21.52 million
  • Canyonville: $400,000
  • Drain: $240,000
  • Elkton: $40,000
  • Glendale: $180,000
  • Myrtle Creek: $710,000
  • Oakland: $190,000
  • Reedsport: $840,000
  • Riddle: $250,000
  • Roseburg: $4.79 million
  • Sutherlin: $1.67 million
  • Winston: $1.12 million
  • Yoncalla: $220,000

Dirt happens: Melrose Elementary School incorporates gardening in the learning process

AJ Dillahay, Caleb Niswonger and Shelby Shinn were garden volunteers Wednesday and helped plant Zinnias and water the various crops at the school garden at Melrose Elementary School.

“I’m not used to planting,” Caleb said, explaining that he usually just helps water the plants and flowers.

Tammy Rasmussen, principal at the school, gave the students a quick lesson on Zinnias and planting. She explained they are flowers and to get the starts from the container you should hold them upside down and squeeze the sides so they’ll fall out and can be planted in the larger flower bed.

Rasmussen said the school tried to mimic their garden after plants that are an important part of the Melrose valley — blueberries from Norris Farms, pumpkins from Kruse Farms and lettuce from Integral Farms.

“I really like planting and seeing how beautiful things are,” Shelby said. She specifically liked to see ripe, red strawberries and dark purple flowers.

All students have access to the garden and the student council comes to water the garden twice a day.

The Baltos family, who own Integral Farms, donated several different kinds of seeds to the first graders in Angie Allen’s class.

Each student will get to plant their seed, watch them grow and then take the starts home to replant.

“We want to harness their curiosity,” Rasmussen said.

Allen said one of the things students learned in her class that big things can grow from small seeds.

In Kristin Wickert’s first grade class, students were learning about bees.

Orion Averett learned bees are pollinators. Braden Lander added, “We learned that honeybees make more honey than bumblebees. And, honeybees are harder to spot because they’re tiny. Bumblebees are big and fluffy.”

Students made a water color painting of a bee in a hive before heading to lunch.

Johnathan Townsend’s bee took over most of his paper. “I think it might be the queen bee,” he said.

Oregon’s two main gun bills could be combined, weakened in new proposal

SALEM — Oregon lawmakers are considering scaling back and combining the two central gun control proposals to emerge this session.

Under an amendment taken up by the House Rules Committee on Wednesday, a bill to ban guns in state buildings and allow local governments to pass their own bans would be curbed significantly.

The amended proposal to Senate Bill 554 — submitted by Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, whose chamber has already approved the changes — would limit a new ban to the state Capitol, and only allow K-12 schools, community colleges and universities to enact bans. Local governments like counties and cities would not have that ability.

The new proposal would also ensure that anyone violating those bans would face a class A misdemeanor if they have a concealed handgun license, a lesser crime than the class C felony in the original bill.

Courtney’s amendment would also incorporate the session’s other major gun proposal, House Bill 2510, into SB 554, ensuring that the concepts’ success or failure this year are tied to one another — and that fewer potentially hours-long debates are required to pass both.

HB 2510, known as the “safe-storage bill,” would require Oregonians to lock their guns when not in use. The bill would create penalties if guns are not stowed properly, require owners to report stolen guns and help facilitate lawsuits against owners whose improperly stored firearms are stolen and used to cause injuries or property damage. The new amendments, however, alter the liability standard for such lawsuits, requiring plaintiffs to demonstrate more elements in order to prevail over gun owners.

The changes reflect the strong headwinds gun control bills face in Oregon, despite the fact that Democrats have a supermajority in both legislative chambers. The safe-storage proposal has been introduced each year since 2019, but has been defeated twice amid walkouts by Republican lawmakers.

Republicans still strenuously oppose the proposals, with some openly advocating for walking away from this session last month in order to block SB 554 from passing the Senate in its original form. Republican senators who showed up to oppose the bill, thereby allowing Democrats to hold a vote, have been the target of threats and political backlash. With no guarantee the GOP won’t walk away from the Capitol as the legislative session draws closer to an end, some lawmakers want to pass the gun bills as soon as possible.

HB 2510 had been scheduled for a vote in the House this week, but was pushed back until next Monday. It now appears the bill will be scrapped in favor of an amended SB 554.

But the new tweaks — negotiated over the weekend — are giving pause to some Democrats.

State Sens. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, and Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, were both key supporters of SB 554 as it passed the Senate. Both said they were comfortable with including safe-storage provisions in the measure, meaning it would have to head back to the Senate for another vote. But they also took issue with the weakened provisions negotiated by Courtney.

In particular, Burdick and Prozanski said that a gun ban should apply to all state buildings, not just the state Capitol. And they said that public schools, colleges and universities should be allowed to create bans on school grounds, not just inside school buildings. Both cited the possibility of violence erupting at sporting events.

“I’ve been in this process a long time, and I understand the necessity for compromise,” Burdick testified. But she added that the proposed compromise “goes way too far in terms of weakening the bill.”

Guns are already prohibited in most public buildings in Oregon, but an exception exists for people who hold concealed handgun licenses, or CHLs. It’s those permit holders that SB 554 would impact.

Proposed changes to the safe-storage bill met approval from state Rep. Rachel Prusak, D-West Linn, a chief sponsor.

“The goal of this safe storage firearm bill is to change the behavior of the portion of gun owners whose careless actions lead to deaths and injury of others,” Prusak said. The new negligence standard being proposed, she said, “is strong enough to cause gun owners who do not practice safe storage to begin securing their firearms.”

Republicans, meanwhile, continued to pan the narrowed proposals. State Rep. Lily Morgan, R-Grants Pass, voiced worry that her constituents would not be able to defend themselves from intruders if they were forced to hurriedly unlock their guns.

“To me this bill would harm more individuals than it will help,” said Morgan, who added that her rural constituents “know that they need to be able to protect themselves and not rely on law enforcement” that can’t arrive in time.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Kim Wallan, R-Medford, said she felt better in the state Capitol knowing that some of her colleagues keep concealed weapons.

“Most of the time there are people there who don’t always wish us well,” Wallan said. “Knowing that my colleagues had weapons there always made me feel more secure, not less secure.”

The debate comes as opponents to new gun proposals have carried out threatening and sometimes noxious acts in order to influence lawmakers. State Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, and other Republicans have described getting death threats after refusing to walk out over SB 554. They have forwarded those threats to the state police.

Meanwhile, earlier this week anti-Semitic flyers targeting Prusak were taped up in Clackamas County. The flyers had a link to a website for the group Gun Owners of America, according to a photo supplied by House Democrats, and they included a depiction of Prusak wearing a Star of David.

In a statement Wednesday, Prusak said she was in touch with law enforcement.

“Like so many people who experience intimidation and hate, I will not back down on either my determination to call out these acts or my efforts to work towards policies that keep us all safe,” Prusak said. “I am a victim of gun violence. I know the trauma victims of gun violence face and I will not be intimidated from passing legislation on gun safety.”