City council approves IGA with Linn County

Benny Westcott

The Sweet Home City Council came close March 8 to losing the Lebanon-based Family Assistance and Resource Center Group’s involvement in a long-proposed and intensely discussed homeless center. 

Council members voted by the slimmest of margins, 4-3, to approve a proposed intergovernmental agreement between Linn County and the City of Sweet Home to develop an easement that would provide access and utilities to a “managed outreach and community resource center facility” east of Bi-Mart in the “Knife Property,” a sliver of the former Weyerhaeuser/Willamette Industries mill site currently owned by the county. 

The FAC would own and operate the center. The access easement would also serve a county-proposed RV sewage disposal facility on the site, as both developments require water, power, telecommunications, lighting and road infrastructure. 

Community and Economic Development Director Blair Larsen said at the meeting that the county wouldn’t donate the “Knife Property” to the FAC until the easement was resolved.

The county had previously offered to give to the group a portion west of the City of Sweet Home Public Works Yard, currently accessed via 24th Avenue, and keep the rest for its RV dump station. The current access, however, is inadequate for these uses and too close to a planned 24th Avenue railroad crossing, Larsen said. 

A rough estimate for the easement-area upgrade puts the total project cost at $183,719. Linn County would be responsible for $106,503 of that, with Sweet Home and the FAC on the hook for the remaining $77,216. The county would provide funding for the improvements’ roadway portion. 

Councilor Dave Trask, one of the three “no” votes, said he had no issue with the dump site, but added, “I just don’t think that we should be paying for that.” Councilors Angelita Sanchez and Dylan Richards also voted no on the easement. 

The importance of determining the homeless center’s future at the March 8 meeting – and no later – was made clear when FAC project manager Brock Byers issued an ultimatum in the form of a statement from the group’s board of directors to the council.

“We are prepared to move forward with the agreed homeless project plans,” Byers read. “We … have also decided that we are prepared to withdraw from the project agreement with Sweet Home if the IGA is not signed or we are prohibited in some way from moving forward at this time.

“It is disappointing that politics postponed a project that could have saved an extremely valuable and vulnerable life. It is disappointing that so many people have put so much time, resources and money, and there has been no benefit for the city, for FAC and definitely not the people we serve. … 

“It is sad that the people in charge of making sure that all of the city’s residents are served would treat their unhoused people as less important than other constituents. The human beings at the camp are not ‘those people’ or ‘them.’ They are ‘us.’ They are a vibrant display of how the city of Sweet Home cares for its people, all of its people. 

“If the agreement to move forward with the project is unnecessarily delayed … the city will lose FAC’s participation. … The city could also be found noncompliant with the Supreme Court law Martin vs. Boise (a 2018 Ninth Circuit Court decision ruling that people experiencing homelessness cannot be criminally punished for sleeping outdoors on public property if there are no available alternatives), which leaves the city open to lawsuit. … Many local partners and organizations are closely watching Sweet Home at this moment because of its progressive actions to start this project. 

“It is still our hope that the city will move forward with this project. … If we are unable to fulfill this vision at this time, it is our wish that once the politics have been decided, the city will reach out to partner with FAC in the future.” 

Mayor Greg Mahler had further questions for the county about the deal when it was first presented to him at the meeting, but after hearing the FAC’s statement, he said, “Reluctantly, yes” when it was his time to vote. 

In other business, the council: 

— Voted 5-2 to approve a “Memorandum of Understanding” with the Family Assistance and Resource Center Group for the proposed homeless center. 

Councilors Sanchez and Richards cast the dissenting votes. 

For more than a year, the city has worked with the FAC to help the unsheltered access services and move into permanent housing. Such a site would enable the city to enforce its urban camping ordinances and direct individuals to the facility when space is available. 

The FAC has obtained $400,000-plus in grants for the center’s establishment and operation. The funding would cover all development costs except for any city staff time or other contributions. Some $42,700 remains of the city’s $50,000 current fiscal-year budget to address homelessness; it would be tapped for staff time and infrastructure improvements.  

In addition, the city would commit to providing nighttime security at the site, which is expected to cost approximately $88,000 annually. City staff have yet to identify a funding source for this unbudgeted expense. 

Under this agreement, the city would donate its former City Hall Annex, a manufactured building that has since been declared surplus property. 

— Unanimously adopted a resolution terminating the COVID-19 “state of emergency,” which had been in place since March 19, 2020. 

— Voted 6-1 to use the services offered by Oregon Cascade West Council of Governments (OCWCOG) through implementation of an intergovernmental agreement for assistance in recruiting a new Sweet Home city manager. The estimated cost of services would be between $1,200 and $3,000, based on the work performed. 

Former city manager Ray Towry resigned in mid-February after roughly five years in the position. He’s been replaced in the interim by Christy Wurster, who had previously served as Sweet Home’s city manager pro tem from May to November 2016. 

Sanchez cast the dissenting vote. 

“I prefer a bid process,” she said. “I would love to select some sort of recruitment firm because I feel as though we are looking for a needle in a haystack. I would be of the opinion to maybe pay a little bit more money to hopefully get a better return on our investment, as we know that the city manager needs to be a visionary for our town. I just think that we need to maybe not use a coupon and take the next step up to try to find somebody that really works for our community.” 

— Voted unanimously to allow Wurster the use of a city vehicle for work and “on-call” purposes, and to authorize her to fill a temporary Public Works Department seasonal employee position based on recommendations from Public Works Director Greg Springman. 

— Voted unanimously to approve a contract with the Sweet Home Chamber of Commerce for its visitor center. The contract is for $15,000 in fiscal year 2022-23, paid in three installments of $5,000 throughout the year.

The city’s had an agreement with the Chamber of Commerce to operate the visitor center for several years. In 2016 the two entered a contract that defined desired outcomes. Since then, they’ve worked to refine its reporting and language.  

— Voted 5-2 to refer the decision on a Radiator Supply House request to support the 2022 Sweet Home Icebox Cookoff, slated for July 2, as part of the city’s economic development efforts in the amount of $15,000 to the Administration, Finance and Property Committee for recommendation to City Council. 

The Jack Daniels-co-sponsored event is estimated to cost $75,000. Local business sponsors have raised $25,000. Any city support would be used for promotion, not as payout to competitors. 

Mahler wasn’t opposed to directing city funds toward the cookoff, but wanted the Administration, Finance and Property Committee to process the request first, setting a precedent for future scenarios. 

“We’re trying to come up with some structured process regarding this, and I think it’s probably well overdue,” he said. “Because if we don’t, everybody’s going to come through that door wanting money, and how are you going to do it? We have to have some kind of criteria before we donate money.” 

Richards and Sanchez cast the dissenting votes. 

Radiator Supply House raised $13,000 for last year’s inaugural cookoff, which it also hosted. The money was awarded as prizes to the 41 competing teams. Despite its private status due to COVID-19 regulations, the event attracted roughly 400 people. 

This year, a $30,000 payout has been guaranteed to competitors at the cookoff, which will feature beverages and live music in addition to the barbecue. Among the marquee names who’ve committed to the event are “BBQ Ninja” Craig Verhage and MotorTrend’s “Iron Resurrection” host Jayson “Shag” Arrington.

More than 4,000 people are expected to attend.