County commissioners ask Rockwood residents to be realistic about the East County Justice Center

Rockwood, East County Justice Center debacle continues.  Budget overruns, poor leadership, and tough economic times plague beleagured project

The debacle continues.
Budget overruns, poor leadership, and tough economy plague chronically delayed project in Rockwood.

Source: The Oregonian, Tuesday May 12, 2009
by Nikole Hannah-Jones

Stalled for decades, project now lacks support

Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel told a crowd gathered to fight for a East County justice center in Rockwood that there's not enough board support to build the long-delayed courthouse project anywhere in Gresham because of the economy. The community should stop fighting for location and push commissioners to support building it at all, she said. Editor: Contact the commissioners here.

McKeel, County Chairman Ted Wheeler, Sheriff Bob Skipper, Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis and District Attorney Mike Schrunk sat with a panel of other government officials at a forum Tuesday night where community members were to urge the county board to reconsider building the beleagured project in Rockwood.

Original plans called for a justice center to be built in Rockwood, which has been plagued by crime and disinvestment. But Wheeler proposed the project, which has been stalled for decades, be moved to downtown Gresham because it would save about $7 million.

That would bring the courthouse cost under $20 million after estimates soared to $42 million.

Editor: Read related articles here

Tough economy, budget deficits

In tough economic times, governments aren't building new facilities, both McKeel and Wheeler said. So while the other three commissioners support a facility, they don't necessarily support building one now while the county faces a two-year $46million budget deficit.

"It's not about location, it's about building it," McKeel said. "Right now we have two solid votes. We need another one. (Commissioners) aren't hearing the grass roots movement of how much we want it, they are hearing where we want it." Editor: Contact the commissioners here.

Gresham city councilmen Paul Warr-King and Richard Strathern urged the commissioners to keep an open mind about the facility.

But Wheeler said while bold vision is important for any project, so is pragmatism.

"The economy took a nose dive," he said. "We have to be prepared to adapt to changing circumstances. We're doing the best we can with the resources we've got."

"I don't think there's full support from county commissioners to move forward on this project even under these circumstances," he said.

What's next for Rockwood?

Residents seemed resigned once hearing the commissioners speak, and the questions centered on what would be done with the vacant Rockwood land that the county purchased for the site, and whether there'd be adequate parking and security. Residents feared they would get promised something else and then get nothing.

Rep. Jefferson Smith, D-Portland, said he appreciated the commissioners' willingness to discuss their tough decisions, but also said the state needed revenue reform and questioned whether Rockwood was going to continue "getting screwed."

Jean DeMaster, who runs the nonprofit Human Solutions and who lives in East County, said building a building by itself won't reduce crime. Police, drug and alcohol treatment, gang prevention and school services will reduce crime in Rockwood.

Blame and excuses abound

Pat Webb, who moved to Rockwood in 1960, expressed anger at the long-stalled project. "This is something the people of Rockwood overwhelmingly want," he said. "Now you're blaming the poor economy. Five years ago we had thriving economy. The problem is you people in control -- the buck stops with you guys."

Wheeler, who inherited the justice center debacle when he came into office, said the project has been devastated by poor leadership and it's time to stop discussing the courthouse and move forward. He said he put forth the most frugal and best plan for the economic times.

"I've given it my best shot," he said.

Gresham still committed to improve Rockwood

To close, Bemis told those gathered that he's not convinced everyone there wanted a justice center in Rockwood. But that they did want the slumlords and graffiti gone, the gangs off the streets and for their kids to be safe when they go to school. He said the city will spend $2 million to put a police presence in Rockwood.

The city's urban renewal is "absolutely committed to improve Rockwood," he said. "The livability issues affect not just Rockwood but all of Gresham."

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