Briggs strives for more citizen interaction

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

January 10, 2007

Barbara Briggs began representing District 1 on the Hood River County Commission last week — with a goal to increase communication with citizens.

“This county is really pretty innovative and creative with a limited amount of funds. But I don’t think the people really know what they (staffers) have done,” she said.

Briggs would like to see the county’s Web site, www.co.hood-river.or.us, updated with more in-depth information about the local government.

“We need to find a way to make it a little more user-friendly and provide better information about what’s happening,” she said.

For example, the county is exploring options for getting into the renewable energy business. That money could augment $4 million in annual revenue from harvests on 30,000 acres of county-owned forest.

Briggs said in a time of shrinking public budgets, the county is seeking to maintain essential services without placing more of a burden on taxpayers. The costs for material and services are being held down and several departments have been consolidated.

At the same time, she said, the government entity is striving to help low- to middle-income residents find an affordable home.

Briggs has been a member of the Workforce Housing Task Force since winning her seat in May as the sole candidate. She believes community spirit is fostered when citizens come together from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds.

So, her role with the task force seems an extension of her job as executive director of the local United Way chapter. Briggs, 52, has spent the majority of her career helping families and society make positive changes.

She said the county is now gathering data on converting the north end of its State Street parking lot into condominiums or apartments. However, she said the county is not interested in becoming a landlord or property manager.

“Our goal is just to provide more housing opportunities,” she said.

Briggs takes no personal stand on Measure 37. But she does believe the county needs to be involved in any legislative “fix.” She supports having the county set up an advisory group to explore ways the state’s land-use system can be made more flexible.

If more options are opened up to landowners, Briggs said the outstanding issues could be resolved without undue divisiveness.

“Somewhere in the middle of the ‘pave over paradise’ scare tactics and property rights is the reality of what Measure 37 is really going to deal with,” she said.

Meanwhile, as the political wrangling over the law heats up in Salem, Briggs would like to see an “informational piece” distributed by the county to citizens. She said local officials could dispel confusion by laying out facts about the claim and development review processes.

Briggs said it does not appear that most farmers and foresters are intent on large developments. But she believes that the concerns of neighbors and conservationists also need to be considered.

“We have so much public land and our private land base is small,” said Briggs. “Hood River County is almost a poster child for Measure 37 because so much of our private land is in agriculture.”

Briggs, who is a professional facilitator for public agencies, believes those skills will aid the county board. She said, during times of debate on Measure 37 and other controversial issues, she will work to ensure that everyone feels heard and their concerns validated.

“I think it’s important for Measure 37 to not take over everything the county does. I think we need to make sure that it doesn’t become the sole focus,” said Briggs. “We have a lot of other work to do and we need to make sure that we put energy into those other needs.”

For example, she said if the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Reauthorization Act is not approved by Congress, the county will lose $1.7 million of its road maintenance budget. So, officials need to focus now on championing the efforts of U.S. Reps. Greg Walden and Peter DeFazio to extend the money for another seven years.

But the county also needs to give a long look at diversifying its economic development interests. The “county payments” law was first authorized in 2000 to offset the loss of timber receipts after harvest levels declined dramatically in national forests. The intent of Congress was to provide time for struggling counties to make a transition into other industries.

Briggs said that is a tough task for Hood River County since 61 percent of its land-base is comprised of national forest. She contends it is going to take creative solutions to overcome that challenge.

Briggs believes the seated county board well represents the farming sector of the county and the urban population. And the current mix of personalities is going to accomplish “good things” for the county’s 21, 335 citizens.

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