Last week, I promised to write more about July’s National Association of Counties’ (NACo) Conference, held in Portland, Oregon, but first, some comments about the debt ceiling battle in Congress, and its potential effect on counties.
During the conference, county officials began to hear cautionary messages from Moody’s, one of the New York bond houses that rate the credit worthiness of local governments. Fairfax County has one of the highest ratings in the country: AAA from all three rating agencies. The first glimmer of a problem was identified by a colleague from Franklin County, Ohio (Columbus), who told me her county received an email notice that morning of a possible downgrade. I immediately emailed Fairfax County Executive Anthony Griffin to inquire if Fairfax County had received similar notice. Although Fairfax was not on the list then, a few days later, many more counties got notices. If Congress failed to raise the debt ceiling, and the nation went into default, county bond ratings would be affected, even though our budgets always balance, and our financial policies adhere to the strictest guidelines. Congress finally passed a debt ceiling bill literally at the 11th hour, but it is unclear whether the bond agencies’ notices will be rescinded. What was clear in the debate, however, was that some members of Congress were willing to devastate local governments, taxpayers, and the nation, in their rigid zeal to divide the country and damage the Presidency.
Portland’s light rail, the TriMet MAX system, is terrific. Delegates to the conference used it to travel from hotel, to convention center, to downtown, and back again – all for free! Free zones cover much of the central city area on both sides of the Willamette River, which made riding attractive. Trains generally are two cars long, run frequently, and stations, above ground, are easily accessible. The rail lines were built on existing streets downtown, relegating general traffic to a single lane on some streets. Outside of the central city, lines are in the right-of-way between an interstate highway and heavy rail tracks, with stations easily accessible by elevator or stairs. A trip on MAX from the Portland International Airport to our hotel, about a 20-minute ride, was $2.35. In downtown Portland, MAX intersects with the Portland Streetcar, which also has an extensive free zone. Apparently, you can live and work in Portland without ever having to pay a fare on public transit. The system serves Portland and Multnomah County, Washington County to the west, and Clackamas County to the east; hence the name TriMet.
Portland also has an extensive collection of public art, from the historic 1888 Skidmore Fountain and 52 bronze “Benson Bubblers” drinking fountains, to the controversial “Portlandia,” said to be second in size only to the Statue of Liberty as a hammered copper work. Modern sculpture abounds along the main streets of downtown Portland, funded in part by a one percent for art requirement in Portland’s building code. Classical or quirky, Portland’s public art is cause for conversation.
I also visited Portland’s Bud Clark Commons, which offers day programs for homeless persons, overnight shelter for men and women, and transitional housing, near Union Station and the river. Providing both dignity and structure, the Commons is unique because it was built new, not retrofitted, but when I asked a Multnomah County Commissioner about the size of the homeless population, she would not give me a specific number. With some prodding, she acknowledged that it was probably more than 3000, twice the number in Fairfax County, which has an overall population twice the size of Portland. Oregon’s jobless rate hovers just below 10 percent; Virginia’s is 6 percent.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be e-mailed at email@example.com