Officers commended with Life Saving Awards

Benny Westcott

An information-packed Nov. 8 Sweet Home City Council meeting began with four Sweet Home Police Department officers receiving Life Saving Awards for a pair of incidents, one involving one of their own.

The council cited Sergeant Ryan Cummings and Detective Geoff Hamlin for their Oct. 12 actions after Communications Commander Penny Leland suffered a life-threatening medical episode while on duty.

Sergeant Dave Hickox, who was tasked with researching interim Police Chief Jason Ogden’s Oct. 25 nomination, submitted a memorandum on the event. According to that account, dispatcher Katie Lyon heard a bang coming from Leland’s office. When she and Community Services Officer Sean Morgan investigated, they found Leland on the floor, where she was having difficulty breathing and likely seizing.

Lyon told fellow dispatcher Heather Mann to call 911, then called out to Cummings for help. Hamlin also came, noticing that Leland was face-down on the floor. He rolled her over and began checking for a pulse. Cummings noticed food in her mouth, so he removed it and checked for a pulse as well.

Leland’s condition did not improve, so Cummings requested a CPR mask, with which he began rescue breaths. Then came the department’s automated external defibrillator, which Hamlin helped Cummings set up. It wasn’t used, however, as Sweet Home medics arrived and took over. While they provided rescue breaths, Cummings began chest compressions.

Leland was eventually stabilized and taken to Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital. She has since recovered, even resuming occasional shifts at the department.

“I know from my training and experience that in medical emergencies such as cardiac arrest, the first 10 minutes are critical,” Hickox noted in the memorandum.

Ogden added that the honor may be awarded to someone who, through self-initiated actions, contributed to a life-saving effort without unnecessarily endangering his or her own life.

“Your fast thinking, swift and professional actions saved the life of a fellow employee,” the award plaques read. “The community and the city of Sweet Home thank you.”

Leland’s daughter, Cassie Richey, a Sweet Home Fire & Ambulance District business office assistant, wrote in a Facebook post, “My mom and I work with some pretty amazing people, who are the only reason she is here today. Everyone should know how to do CPR. My mom’s coworkers’ quick actions starting CPR right away saved her life, and I hope they all know how much I appreciate them.”

Ogden gave additional credit to Fire Chief Chief Nick Tyler, who was “actually sitting on the ground and attending to Penny. It was a powerful picture of your top leader there, serving. I’m super thankful for Nick and his crew.”

City Manager Kelcey Young presented a Life Saving Award to Ogden for his actions surrounding the incident. “You were a perfect leader during this instance,” she said to the interim chief. “You communicated, led your team, and stayed calm. You did everything that a police chief needed to do.”

Sweet Home police officer Sean Potter received the evening’s fourth Life Saving Award for a Dec. 23 incident.

A field-training officer at the time, Potter responded that afternoon to a crash on Main Street, where a motorcyclist was injured after hitting a Jeep.

Several people were helping the motorcyclist, 34-year-old Curtis Rowe of Albany, when Potter arrived and assessed his injuries. After seeing a lot of blood coming from his right leg, Potter applied a tourniquet. Rowe had multiple fractures on his right leg beginning at his hip.

Potter later mentioned to Cummings that based on his extensive medical training in the military, he saw that Rowe had a severed artery, which led to his decision to apply the tourniquet.

Hickox later told Cummings that Rowe brought a box of hot chocolate to the department as a thank-you, adding that according to his doctor, he would have died from blood loss were it not for the officer’s actions.

“The victim in this crash has not only been in one time to bring in hot chocolate, but numerous times this last year,” Ogden said. “He is super thankful for Officer Potter applying that tourniquet.”

The chief told Potter, “You had a direct impact on somebody’s life that lives in this community, and what more can I say? That is just phenomenal.”

Addressing all four Life Saving Award recipients, Young said “You saved lives in our community, as you do routinely, and you brought these people back to us. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you for being in this community and for your constant diligence and dedication to the community, especially in this time where officers are not always respected and appreciated the way they should be.”

Mayor Greg Mahler said “We look at our everyday jobs and our role as a city councilor, and we sometimes think we have thankless jobs. But in no way does it compare to the role of a police officer. I know that they look upon it as a rewarding career, but they put their lives on the line, and they put up with a lot of crap. They deserve recognition that a lot of times they don’t get.”

Ogden said, “These guys and gals are phenomenal, and I want you to know that they go above and beyond and actually truly care for our community, and for each other.”

RV Disposal

The council also discussed motorhomes parked on city streets in a conversation initiated by Sweet Home resident Bill McKinnon.

“There’s people camping on the streets all over in motor homes, fifth wheels and everything else,” McKinnon said. “[Police officers] tag them, but they still stay there a week, and they can’t do anything about it. One motorhome is orange, and it parks all over town. There’s no insurance or license plates on it. I was told the drivers don’t even have driver’s licenses.”

“I’ve talked to the officers and they say, ‘Talk to the city,'” he continued, directing his next comments to the council. “Maybe you need to put ‘no camping’ signs on all the streets around here. They’re homeless, and they’re camping all over. I think something needs to be done about these motorhomes and fifth wheels camping all over town.”

“As a council we’re trying to address this,” Mahler replied. “We’re looking at ordinances and things we can do. A lot of times our hands are tied too.”

“They impound cars,” McKinnon said, then asked, “Why can’t they impound vehicles with no insurance?”

“You can impound a car and find a tow company that’s willing to tow it, because that car has some sort of value,” Community and Economic Development Director Blair Larsen explained. “The tow company can always hold onto it until the owner pays the fees, or ultimately, if it’s abandoned, they can sell off that vehicle.

“The problem with RVs is that with how much they cost to impound, nobody wants them,” he added. “If the owner abandons them and the tow company takes it, nobody wants to take on that RV or trailer. So the tow company is left with this useless piece of equipment that nobody will take or buy. And often they are difficult to dispose of because of the waste that might be involved, and some of these have asbestos. They are quite costly to dispose of.”

According to Ogden, RV disposals cost around $4,000.

Larsen detailed the relevant legal landscape.

“There’s camping outside of an RV, and there’s some court cases that keep us from moving people along if there’s nowhere for them to go,” he said. “It’s debatable whether that actually applies to RVs or camp trailers.”

He cited a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in September 2021 that found the city of Grants Pass had violated the constitutional rights of people experiencing homelessness through ordinances designed to prevent sleeping on public property. According to Larsen, the ruling essentially allowed car-camping but didn’t specifically address RVs.

“That’s the gray area,” he said. “We don’t know exactly how it would be looked at by a court. But at this point, there’s not a specific violation that we would be violating if we came down harder on that.

“We certainly could beef up our ordinances to cut down on trailers and RVs being allowed. Having an ordinance is one thing but being able to enforce it is completely different. A lot of times these folks are already disobeying the parking ordinances. They probably would disobey a more stringent ordinance. If we were going to enforce more, we would need to also look at what it would cost to impound these vehicles.”

“We recognize the issue, and the frustration and concern that you have, for sure,” Ogden told McKinnon. We’re trying to do the best that we can.”

He added that the police department had towed four RVs in the previous few months.

“We’re making progress, slowly but surely,” he said. “We’re trying to hold people accountable.”

“There are a few other things that different cities are looking into,” Young said, “and we are trying to find some alternatives that we’re hoping to bring back to the council at a later date.”

Sweet Home Audit

Ryan Pascarella of Salem-based tax and consulting firm Grove, Mueller & Swank, P.C. presented the city’s audit for the 2021 fiscal year, which ended June 30, 2021.

“Over the last couple of years, the city hasn’t been as timely on getting the audits completed,” Pascarella said, noting that the 2021 audit wasn’t finished until August 2022. Audits are required to be completed within six months of the end of the fiscal year.

“There are extensions that are allowed by the audits division,” he added. “There were a few extensions that were allowed by the state, but we kind of ran out of those, so it was actually filed late per what the state was saying.”

“It took quite a bit of work to get the financial statements materially accurate for reporting purposes,” he continued. “There was a lot of back-and-forth between city employees and us, trying to figure out how to fix some of these balances, including the bank reconciliation process and making sure year end balances are correct.”

He recalled that “there were so many adjustments” that his firm recommended auditors “in order to make this accurate.” He added that his firm had issued a “material weakness” letter to the city, meaning that material errors were a risk based on the city’s current process.

“Ultimately, what we’re saying is that the city needs to make some serious improvements in the processes in order for you as a city to generate your own correct financial information, without a lot of back-and forth-with the auditors,” he said.

“That’s why it took as long as it did for the audit to be completed. We got complete help from the city. Nobody was fighting back with us in order to get us the information. It took a while, but we were happy with the communication. We just needed things a little bit faster.”

He said that his firm recommended 27 adjustments as part of the audit.

“Some of those were pretty darn small things,” he said, “but some of them were much larger.”

Ultimately, he said, the audit received a “clean opinion.”

As for 2022, he noted, “We’re still behind at this point with getting the audits completed, but in my mind you’re in a lot better spot than you were for ’21. I haven’t started auditing any numbers yet for ’22, but we’ll get there.”

“We’ve historically given very good reports to the city,” he continued. “I know there’s a hiccup here, but I’m optimistic with who you have in place now.”

Councilor Dave Trask expressed his frustration on the subject.

“I can’t even explain how bad I feel about this,” he said. “It was a mess for six more months than it should have been. And here we are just now in November getting the report from you. This was not good.”

“I’m blown away with all this. I really am,” Councilor Diane Gerson agreed. “But I’m glad that we were able to get it to a point that satisfied [the auditors] and satisfied the state.”

“We do have a plan in place for this next audit,” Young said. “And while we are still behind and still working on our bank reconciliation, as soon as that’s done, we should be ready to go.”

“I am confident that as a city we have made adjustments to make sure this doesn’t happen in the future,” Mahler said.

OMA Homelessness Taskforce

The council unanimously approved a resolution authorizing its support of an Oregon Mayors Association’s (OMA) Homelessness Taskforce to partner with the state to fund local response and prevention programs.

All councilors were present at the meeting to vote except for Dylan Richards.

The OMA board of directors approved the creation of the task force in May, uniting 25 mayors to develop a homelessness response for communities statewide, regardless of size or location. The group met regularly over the summer and fall to work on the plan, which was finalized and approved last month and emailed to all 90 members of the Oregon Legislature and the top three gubernatorial candidates.

The plan is a partnership between the state of Oregon and its 241 cities. It allows for the establishment and expansion of community-based responses that provide shelter, services and safety. During the 2023 legislative session, the OMA will propose a budget package to provide direct allocation to cities for such services, as well as a separate package for capital improvement funding.

It is proposed that each city would receive funds in an amount equal to $40 per resident. The proposal requires that no incorporated city receive less than $50,000 in direct funding. OMA’s proposal allows them to use the funds for their own homelessness response and prevention services, or to redirect them to community partners required to use the funds for such purposes. Based on the April 19, 2022, Portland State University population estimates, the total amount requested statewide by the OMA would equal $123,575,800 annually.

In addition to the direct allocations, the task force’s proposal requires a meaningful allocation from the state for coordinated capital construction investments for specific shelter and transitional housing projects statewide. A final dollar amount for needed capital construction investments is expected to equal between $125 to $175 million. The OMA is seeking information from Oregon cities about needs for capital construction investments.

If the proposal were to move forward, Sweet Home would be allocated $395,000 annually from the state to address homelessness.

“I actually got a letter from them asking if I was supporting this, and I was actually in support of this,” Mahler said. “I think it’s a good initiative.”

In other action:

— The council voted unanimously to authorize staff to proceed with engineering company West Yost’s recommendation for a $2.5 to $3 million Mahler Water Reclamation Facility (MWRF) Interim Improvement Project.

Public Works Director Greg Springman emphasized that the project would use tanks, piping and equipment proposed for a larger MWRF improvement currently in the planning phase, so that there would be minimal sunk cost associated with these near-term upgrades.

He explained that recent Department of Environmental Quality violations at the plant had staff focusing on how to operate the current facility while a newer one is built. Ongoing issues with the MWRF’s operation and compliance with the City’s National Pollutant Discharge (NPDES) Permit, which regulates the quality of water discharged to the South Santiam River, have led to the need for an interim improvements project to improve solids storage and processing capacity, Springman said.

He noted that while plant staff are doing “everything they can” to operate the MWRF, there simply wasn’t enough capacity to consistently meet NPDES permit requirements. Thus, city staff and West Yost proposed completion of a “MWRF Interim Improvements Project” to address the issue of solids storage and processing capacity.

To meet a late June 2023 deadline for spending $7 million in grant funding from the Oregon Legislature, West Yost proposed that the city proceed with pre-purchasing solids dewatering equipment and a solids storage tank while final design for the MWRF Interim Improvement Project is completed.

The council also voted unanimously to authorize staff to replace the MWRF outfall, which, according to Springman, was undersized and in a poor location in the South Santiam River, outside the main channel and subject to soil accretion.

Previously, the approach for increasing outfall capacity to match the MWRF design flows was to retain the existing outfall and add an “overflow” outside the mean high-water elevation on the South Santiam River.

However, this approach was discussed in a meeting with city staff, West Yost engineers and National Marine Fisheries Services representatives, where it was learned that the environmental permitting requirements for this approach could be more complicated than simply replacing and upsizing the existing South Santiam River outfall diffuser.

— The council voted unanimously to authorize Young to sign a streetlight audit services agreement with Portland renewal energy company Ameresco.

It was the first step in converting the city’s streetlights to more efficient light-emitting diode (LED) technology, and to adopt a resolution approving the sole-source procurement of Ameresco LED street light conversion services, after city staff determined that the services were available from only one source.

The city currently pays electricity costs for about 900 streetlights, which are owned and maintained by Pacific Power. The firm only upgrades lights to more efficient LED fixtures when those lights reach the end of their lives. In the meantime, the city is left with the bill for the additional electricity required by these older, less efficient streetlights.

In March 2021, Ameresco gave an LED conversion services presentation to the council.

If the city moves forward with an agreement, Ameresco would pay to upgrade the streetlights to LED, which would decrease the rates the city pays to Pacific Power, thus saving “significant” money on an annual basis, according to Larsen. Ameresco would be paid from a portion of the resulting savings for a period, after which the city would enjoy the full savings.

The first step in this project is for Ameresco to conduct an energy savings audit of the streetlights. If an agreement is reached, the city could reduce energy costs for streetlights by an estimated $73,000 annually. The audit services agreement with Ameresco would cost $26,866, which would only be paid if the city chose not to continue with the project. But if it moves forward, that fee would be wrapped into the overall project, and would be paid for out of the energy savings.

Larsen said that the new LED lights would be brighter and more directional.

“It’s just so dark in a lot of areas,” Councilor Angelita Sanchez said. “I do believe that increased lighting helps with some sort of nighttime activities, and I do believe that the citizens of the community would be very happy to have better lighting, especially with some of the crimes that occur late at night. I think it would be a deterrent.”

— Library Services Director Megan Dazey updated the council on the Library Advisory Board’s decision to eliminate fines for overdue Sweet Home Public Library books after the board voted to remain a fine-free library in February following a three-month trial period.

Dazey reported that as a result, staff members have had fewer negative interactions with patrons and spent more time on other projects and programming. Circulation was also up, she said, particularly for children’s materials.

Last year, the library averaged $40 per month in overdue fines. Staff sent an average of 90 letters per month following phone calls or emails regarding overdue items, spending 30 minutes per day exclusively handling payments or contacts with patrons, Dazey reported. She noted that staff also had to reconcile daily payments, even for just 15 cents. In addition, the library paid postage for each letter, as well as for envelopes, paper and printing.

“It cost us more to contact patrons and to take payments than we took in each month,” she said.

Patrons were still billed for an item’s full cost when it wasn’t returned 30 days after the due date, but Dazey said that was happening significantly less.

“Library fines are known to disproportionately harm low-income households the most,” she said. “They are most in need of services that a library offers and are the most likely to be impacted by even a minimal fine while being the least likely to be able to afford to pay a fine. Sweet Home has a 19.8% poverty rate. Being fine-free is an asset to our community.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Councilor Sanchez said. “I know that some people don’t appreciate that we are fine-free, but as a single mom many years ago, I was in debt to the library, and I would have to wait until I brought canned foods to get my fines reduced or forgiven so my kids could check out books. Because we are a low-income community, I’m just thankful that the kids still have the opportunity to read.”

Dazey said that the Sweet Home Public Library inspired both Lebanon and Albany libraries to become at least partially fine free.

— The council unanimously approved street closures from 4 to 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10, for the annual Parade of Lights. The city’s Public Works department will place “no parking” signs at 4, then close the streets at 5.

Long and the south side of Main Street will be closed from 10th to 22nd avenues while Main’s north side will be used for two-way traffic during the parade.

— The council voted unanimously to cancel city council meetings scheduled for Nov. 22 and Dec. 27.