State officials express concern over Clackamas County’s stance on social service center

Clackamas County commissioners’ decision to terminate an agreement to help provide social services in North Clackamas has attracted the attention of state legislators who are hopeful that school district and county officials are now working toward a solution.

State Rep. Janelle Bynum said that she called County Board Chair Tootie Smith and wasn’t able to talk with Smith about the Wichita Center, which provides an array of services like a food bank and clothes closet to vulnerable residents in the community.

NCPRD Wichita FAQs

On Feb. 19, Smith emailed Bynum the parks district’s “frequently asked questions” fact sheet on Wichita. Smith’s email introduced the fact sheet by writing, “I think there is a lot of misunderstanding, some of which is being repeated by members of the community.”

In a follow-up interview with Pamplin Media Group, Bynum said she believes commissioners, not the school board members and over 100 citizens who have signed a petition against the termination, have a fundamental misunderstanding. Bynum, the chair of the House Committee on Economic Development who is currently running for Congress, said that it’s debatable as to whether Wichita is “outside of the core parks and recreation mission,” as the FAQs stated.

Regardless of whether the center is within the parks district’s purview, Bynum sees commissioners as missing the point. Bynum said that county commissioners shouldn’t be doing anything to destabilize services for residents experiencing family instability like homelessness, job loss or medical emergencies.

“County commissioners should have an interest in making sure that those services are available to the public,” Bynum said.

County officials say that commissioners remain committed to continuing to collaborate with the North Clackamas School District with the goal of continuing Wichita services without interruption. They say that “it was more a formality rather than a termination” to send a notice in December to terminate the Wichita Center partnership with 180 days’ notice.

Clackamas County officials also point out that they did not terminate the two leases at the Wichita Center under the county’s Health, Housing and Human Services department for services like behavioral health and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants & Children.

Negotiations have appeared to have become more collaborative since Milwaukie and NCSD officials shared harsh words to criticize the county during their joint meeting on Feb. 8. NCSD and North Clackamas Park administrators released the following joint statement on Feb. 22 regarding Wichita’s future ownership:

“Both organizations share a mutual interest in maintaining the programs that have been servicing the community for several years. Updates will be provided when possible. No decisions will be made until both the NCPRD Board and the NCSD Board are presented with a recommendation and can deliberate in a public meeting.”

How did we get here?

County commissioners made their decision to terminate the partnership without holding a public meeting. County commissioners typically meet quarterly as the board for North Clackamas Parks, but the last such meeting they held as the NCPRD Board took place in September.

County commissioners made the decision to acquire Wichita as part of a 2018 property exchange with the school district, which paid $14 million to North Clackamas Parks as part of the deal. At the time, North Clackamas Parks was considering three community centers in various parts of the district, including at the former Wichita and Clackamas elementary schools.

Delays in approving construction led to skyrocketing inflationary costs for renovating community centers. County commissioners decided to focus parks district funding on a library and community center at the former Concord Elementary School, where construction is now underway.

An intergovernmental agreement first established in 2018 called for Wichita’s social services to continue temporarily, as NCSD led the services through a transition period. NCSD would also have oversight and management of all tenant agreements, including rent collection revenue that remained with the school district. At the same time, the school district has provided the parks district with use of school fields at a value estimated at $300,000 annually outside of the COVID era.

As envisioned by the original agreement scheduled to end in 2020, NCPRD would then use Wichita for parks and recreation activities at the end of the transition period. This transition period was extended to 2026 to provide more time for a transition plan.

Wichita Facility Assessement

Both county and school district officials agree that Wichita’s building sorely needed maintenance in 2018, and the building’s condition has only worsened over the past six years. School district officials believe that the building will need at least $4 million in repairs, an estimate that doesn’t include seismic upgrades.

It remains to be seen whether the school district will be able to regain ownership of Wichita for $1. During their meeting with city councilors in February, school board members said that the high costs for repairs are part of the reason they’re asking for such a low cost to transfer ownership.

NCSD letter to county commissioners

In addition to high costs of a new roof and HVAC system, the November assessment identified potential deficiencies putting “portions of the buildings at risk of partial collapse or present a falling hazard during a major seismic event and thereby endanger the safety of the buildings’ occupants.”

NCSD Assistant Superintendent of Operations Cindy Detchon didn’t need a formal assessment to raise the alarm about conditions throughout the interior and exterior of the Wichita building. Detchon wrote to county commissioners on Oct. 16: “Despite our best efforts in engaging with NCPRD to address these concerns and secure the necessary repairs, the building’s condition continues to worsen. We have reached a critical point where we are deeply concerned about the life and safety of the occupants and patrons who rely on the services offered at the Wichita Center.”

Clackamas County response to NCSD

In a response on Nov. 2, County Administrator Gary Schmidt acknowledged NCSD’s interest in potentially acquiring Wichita with the intention of maintaining its public service mission. Schmidt wrote that the formal assessment would be “a starting place for an acquisition conversation.”

But acquisition conversations between school and parks officials were delayed until Jan. 3, weeks after the county commission decided to terminate the Wichita agreement within 180 days. County officials said that an earlier intergovernmental meeting was scheduled for December but was rescheduled to January due to scheduling conflicts.

“There is no connection between the school district’s letter of interest and the NCPRD Board’s cancelation of the transition agreement,” a county spokesperson Scott Anderson wrote. “The NCPRD Board took NCSD’s interest of acquiring the building seriously and presumed a transaction would occur well within the 180 days.”

Agendas for the county commissioners show that they held closed-door meetings to discuss NCPRD issues. County commissioners met in executive session as the NCPRD Board on Nov. 28, Dec. 5 and Dec. 12.

County officials said that NCPRD Board and Parks District Advisory Committee public meetings were canceled due to the holidays and absences of members. The NCPRD Board’s next public meeting is scheduled for March 20. NCPRD advisory committee members met on Jan. 10 and Feb. 14 and will next meet on March 13.


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