Council discusses sleeping area options, hears Fire District concerns

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local

City Council members at their monthly meeting on March 8 continued discussing the possibility of setting up a designated sleeping area at night for the homeless in order to be compliant with recent laws pertaining to managing the homeless population.
They also heard a report on Lebanon Fire District activities.
City staff has considered whether city-owned property could be used as a place to sleep at night and has been trying to determine which piece is best suited for the need.
“By July 1, 2023, all public property is to be made available for people to sleep unless you have reasonable objective standards to exclude something,” City Manager Nancy Brewer explained.
Some of the public property doesn’t work due to its wetland status, location of large equipment, activities in parks, safety concerns and other reasons. Sidewalks and streets are public property, too, but those were ruled out to avoid liability issues to property owners who are responsible for safety on sidewalks in front of their homes.
The site also needs to be serviced by a porta-potty, handwashing station and garbage, she said.
These discussions have already been covered in previous meetings on the subject, but a new option was brought to the table at the meeting. Linn County owns the vacant lot at Highway 20 and Dewey Street, next to The Book Garden bookstore. The city is in conversation with the county about the possibility of acquiring that site and offering it as an option for the designated sleeping area.
One caveat to that option is future plans to move Dewey Street through that property so it aligns with the signal at Walker Street. However, Brewer pointed out, the property could provide a temporary location for sleeping to comply with law, which would give them more time to look at other options for when the lot is converted.
Councilors expressed interest in this option and discussed improvements they’d like to make to the site.
Councilor Michelle Steinhebel specifically said she’d like to promote future discussion about installing a fence and gate at the site. This would enforce the fact that it is to be used only at night, she said.
Mayor Ken Jackola also mentioned improving draining and adding bark chips on the lot.

Fire District Report

Also at the meeting, Fire Chief Joseph Rodondi presented his annual report for the Lebanon Fire District.
The district serves fire calls in 134 square miles serving 29,000 people, but it also serves 419 square miles with its ambulance service, serving 38,000 people stretching from Scio to Crabtree to Brownsville. LFD is one of only three ambulance providers in Linn County (Albany and Sweet Home being the other two providers).
As a fire district, LFD acts as its own local government, a marked difference from a fire department, which operates under the umbrella of city services like the police department and library do. A district keeps its own budget, while a department operates within an allotted portion of city budget.
The LFD’s primary funding source is property tax revenue and its ambulance service (which runs like a business). Bonds, levies and grants are other options for revenue. Emergency response takes up much of the district’s workload (71%) while fire calls take up 2%, which is still a heavy workload, Rodondi said.
He noted that one of LFD’s biggest values in the city is its 25% rate of cardiac patients in 2022 who were revived through CPR and other measures.
“If you suffer a cardiac arrest in our community, the chances of survival are very high compared to the national average,” he said.
However, the district finds itself faced with several challenges that Rodondi said he’s concerned about.
As an independent taxing district rather than a city department, LFD is not eligible to receive funding through the federal government. The district felt that loss when it was unable to receive recent CARES Act, ARPA Act and opioid class action lawsuit settlement funds.
“That’s frustrating for us when we are one of the first responders to the COVID pandemic,” Rodondi said. “Our ability to staff an ambulance and meet the demands of the community came out of our general fund and we’re still suffering from that loss.”
LFD also struggles with increased costs as well as retention and recruitment.
“We have more baby boomers retiring on a daily basis than people that are entering the workforce, let alone trained,” he said. “That will last until 2030.”
Rodondi has a couple of open positions he hasn’t been able to fill for about a year now, he said.
“Lebanon is one of the fastest-growing communities in the state and you should be proud of that,” Rodondi said. “However, my caution to you is when you build units at such a fast rate, you can outpace your public safety. We’re not able to keep up with that demand, so what happens and the potential is you dilute services to your existing population.”
Another challenge lies in the ambulance service costs. Much of the community LFD serves is insured through Medicare and Medicaid, and the costs incurred through those patients are federally required to be written off.
“The cost of service isn’t covered by the cost of Medicare and Medicaid,” Rodondi said.
He presented data indicating LFD receives only 35% of what it bills and has to write off 60% due to government regulations regarding Medicare and Medicaid. Last year, the fire district billed $7,711,715 and wrote off $4,795,948 of that amount, numbers that were similar to 2021.
“That is not a sustainable model,” he said. “My concern of emergency and ambulance services across the nation is we will be forced out of the ability to provide that service.”
Furthermore, a significant demand is also put upon LFD through Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital, he said. Since the hospital does not have a lot of critical services (for strokes, cardiac, pediatrics, etc.), LFD is tasked with transferring those patients out of the area, oftentimes as far away as Eugene and Portland. During COVID, as bed availability declined, LFD received transportation requests to other states.
“We can’t provide that level of service,” he said. “It is an impossible task.”
Though the district creates strategic planning tools to accommodate needs, what it comes down to is they will have to “do less with less,” he said.
“Much like our police had to close the jail, we’re about to step off with this next fiscal year with doing less with less. This is where we’re at with the current economic environment.”

In other actions, the council:
♦ Approved additions and amendments to the Lebanon Public Library policy manual.
Due to an increase in book challenges (book bans, to put it simply) in schools and libraries across the nation, Library Advisory Committee members set themselves to evaluate the library’s policies on collection development and requests for reconsideration (in other words, requesting an offensive book be banned from the public library).
After review, they proposed some changes to their policies, including allowing formal requests for reconsideration be reviewed by the Advisory Committee rather than by the library director alone.
The policy change included language clarification that a person may reject reading materials for themselves or their children, but they cannot exercise censorship controls over others.
Also, if a citizen objects to an item, they may speak with the director about it and, if they feel their concerns are not resolved, they will be given a packet that includes library policies and a form to request the library reconsider keeping the item on its shelves. After the request is submitted, the advisory committee will review the request and make a decision within 30 days;
♦ Heard concerns and comments from the public. Gamael Nassar commented regarding the topic of a designated sleeping area for the homeless. He said the property across from the wastewater treatment plant should be reconsidered as an option because it’s outside of the downtown area, but still close enough to services.
He also spoke to the housing production topic, stating that the city’s impact fees on builders are the same cost regardless of what size home they build, so it makes sense to build the bigger home rather than smaller ones.
Tana Nicholson addressed the council about fluoridization in the city water, citing a report by Dr. Dean Burk indicating health problems and death rates allegedly linked to flouridated water.
Mary Cooke requested a letter from the city to support a moratorium on the allowance of proposed incoming industrialized chicken farms in surrounding cities.
Del Ford complained to the council that when he sold his four-apartment rental unit last year, the city required him to pay $2,774 due to the negligence of his renters.
“I felt wronged because the City of Lebanon took the water bills that the city couldn’t collect from my renters who had separate meter boxes and put liens on my property,” he said. “When in America did we start making people responsible for other peoples’ bills?”
Ford took the matter to small claims court, but someone refused that and wanted to take it to a jury trial (it was unclear whether the city or the court made that decision), he said. Going to trial would cost Ford $10,000, he said.
“How did I become responsible?” he asked. “It was the renters that had the contracts with the city. They were the ones that were billed. Shouldn’t it have been the City of Lebanon’s responsibility to collect those bills?
They did it by misusing the Oregon Lien process. They did it by passing in City Council just a few years ago and made me responsible to pay the renters’ water bills.”
The city had options they could’ve utilized to get payment from the renters, he said. Ford asked to be reimbursed for the cost he paid, but he also asked the policy to be reversed “because it is extortion.”
Rebecca Parsons asked for help to remove graffiti on a marijuana business that contained “gang tagging” and the same initials as her deceased grandson. She expressed deep grief over the matter.
Sara McEldowney expressed her desire to find a way to assist homeless youth, primarily because of recent city discussions regarding, as she put it, “homeless encampments.”
She suggested perhaps the city instead consider directing more resources toward the homeless kids. Her research indicated only two services are available in all of Linn, Lincoln and Benton counties for them.
“I feel like we should maybe focus some of our attention on our children in this community, and an encampment, for me, is not a social service or a human resource,” McEldowney said. “I think it’s a bottom of the barrel. To have these kids being exposed and placed in encampments with at-risk adults I think is a very bad combination.”
McEldowney wanted to help provide a place of respite for the youth and their parents, as well as provide three meals a day.