Rogue Valley News, Wednesday 1/18 – Ashland Needs Volunteers For Wildfire Assessment Backlogs, Trial Date Set In OPB Reporter’s Lawsuit Against City Of Medford

The latest news stories of interest in the Rogue Valley and around the state of Oregon from the digital home of Southern Oregon, Wynne Broadcasting’s RogueValleyMagazine.com

Wednesday, January 18, 2023 

Rogue Valley Weather

Ashland Needs Volunteers For Wildfire Assessment Backlogs

Ashland Fire and Rescue is in need of more volunteers to help with a backlog of home evaluations for wildfire risk.

assessment
Engaging one-on-one with homeowners has proven to be the most effective way
to encourage wildfire risk reduction actions on private property. Our WRAP
Volunteers are an invaluable asset in our community engagement efforts for
creating a more Fire Adapted Ashland. 

Ashland’s Wildfire Risk Assessment Program, in partnership with Ashland Fire & Rescue and Fire Adapted Ashland, helps residents identify how to reduce wildfire risk at home. The city is seeking around 20-30 new volunteers to join its Volunteer Wildfire Risk Assessment Program. In the program, homeowners can get help figuring out how to make their homes and yards more resistant to wildfire.

“Especially since [the Almeda Fire], so many more people wanted to try to find more answers to what they could do around their house, to better protect themselves,” said Program Coordinator Brian Hendrix at Ashland Fire & Rescue. “And so that’s really where it exploded, once we got this program up and running.”

Hendrix said they’ve had a backlog of assessments since the volunteer program began in 2021. Right now they have a three to four-month-long waiting list for home evaluations.

Hendrix said the six volunteers they have now can’t meet the needs of Ashland residents.

“The bigger pool we have of volunteers who are certified and able to go out, the less obligation it is per volunteer,” he said. “To where scheduling, having to leave for vacations or anything else, if we have a big enough pool, we still have those requested assessments covered by somebody.”

Volunteers receive around 30-40 hours of training, after which they visit Ashland homes and evaluate them for wildfire risks, and provide solutions, like trimming vegetation and covering house vents to prevent airborne embers from getting in. After training, Hendrix said volunteers should only expect to do around two assessments per month.

Hendrix said they’re looking for a diverse group of people to reach vulnerable communities. He said there are resiliency grants available for low-income homeowners that could be identified through doing home assessments.

The city is accepting applications until the introductory meeting on March 1. An application for the program is available on the City of Ashland’s website.

Trial Date Set In OPB Reporter’s Lawsuit Against City Of Medford

A trial date has been set for an Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter’s case against the City of Medford.

April Ehrlich was a reporter for Jefferson Public Radio in 2020, when she was prevented from covering a sweep of a homeless camp in a public park by Medford Police. She was arrested and charged, but all charges were dropped or dismissed ahead of her trial in 2022.

Medford police officer’s body-cam shows then Jefferson Public Radio reporter April Ehrlich
being confronted as she tries to cover the sweep of a homeless camp in Sept. 2020.

Now an OPB reporter, Ehrlich is taking Medford officials to court, with the trial scheduled for November 14th. Ehrlich says her arrest was a violation of her constitutional rights, and of free press itself.

“You hear different sides of different stories,” said Ehrlich, explaining the role of journalists in the field. “You have people who are saying ‘the police are doing X, Y, Z,’ and then you have the police saying ‘Well, no, we’re doing A, B, and C.’ And the only way to adequately know what is happening is to have a reporter, a journalist there, documenting these events and providing those facts to people.”

The City of Medford maintains it did nothing wrong and defends its closure of the park.

Ehrlich announced her suit in September. The case will go before U.S. District Court Judge Mark Clarke.

17 Criminal Counts Each In Animal Abuse Case Arraignment For Rogue River Couple

A Jackson County couple has 17 counts of criminal charges to address in court for an animal neglect case.

71-year-old Michael Lee Hamilton and 62-year-old Debbie Lee Hamilton had arraignments today in Jackson County Circuit Court.

Police say they found dead and neglected animals at the Hamilton’s rural Rogue River home in October.

Debbie Hamilton’s charges include ten felony counts for four dead dogs, 11 injured dogs and two hurt cats.

Michael Hamilton’s 17 counts are all misdemeanors.  Their next court date arrives next month.

2023 Oregon Legislative Session Gets Under Way

The Oregon Legislature began its 2023 work in earnest on Tuesday, with just more than five months to pass a budget and tackle pressing issues including homelessness, addiction, and a public defender shortage that has left hundreds of people without their constitutionally guaranteed right to an attorney.

The 90-member Legislature must end its work by June 25. Here’s a look at the biggest issues lawmakers will face this year: 

Passing a budget – The chief task before lawmakers is passing a budget for the two-year period that begins July 1 and ends June 30, 2025. That work will start with a budget proposal Gov. Tina Kotek plans to introduce before Feb. 1 and continue through the following months as Kotek’s staff, legislative leaders and lawmakers on the powerful budget-writing Ways and Means Committee work out where and how to spend billions of dollars. 

Crafting a budget is never easy, but it will likely be made more difficult this year by a deficit. Oregon and other states received an influx of federal funds from pandemic relief legislation over the past few years, and a December report from the Legislative Fiscal Office estimated that the state will be short roughly $560 million if it tries to continue funding current programs at the same level.

It’s unlikely that legislators will be able to raise revenue to fill that gap, as Republicans won enough seats in the November election that Democrats who hold the majority will need Republican support to pass tax increases. 

And they need to plan ahead for future downturns. State economists are forecasting a mild recession beginning this fall. 

Kotek and Democratic leaders have indicated they plan to prioritize housing, homelessness and behavioral health in the budget.

Housing and homelessness – Building more homes, helping people afford to stay in their homes and helping thousands of Oregonians out of homelessness are the top priority for Kotek and legislative Democrats. Kotek is seeking at least $130 million to address homelessness early in the legislative session.

Lawmakers have introduced legislation aimed at clearing some construction barriers, including a bipartisan bill to have the state provide financing for the construction of homes affordable to people making 80% to 120% of the median income in an area. Those middle-income Oregonians earn too much to qualify for subsidized housing but not enough to afford market-rate rent or mortgage payments. 

There are also bills to provide cash assistance to people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless and several proposals to create or extend tax credits and other incentives for affordable housing projects. 

Behavioral health – Lawmakers plan to address Oregon’s behavioral health and addiction crisis, which is linked to concerns like homelessness, slow patient transfers from jails into the Oregon State Hospital and a lack of access to treatment in community mental health programs.

Lawmakers will tackle the situation in different ways, said Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland and chair of the House Committee on Behavioral Health and Health Care. Lawmakers need to prioritize community mental health programs, which can provide treatment to people early before a problem worsens but often lack needed resources and workers, he said.

When patients leave Oregon State Hospital and return to their communities, they often need community mental health programs to aid in their recovery. Nosse said the state also needs to build more residential facilities in Oregon for people with behavioral health needs who need shelter and care.

Public engagement at the Legislature – Pandemic-era restrictions that limited access to the Capitol for the past few years have been lifted, but there are new limits caused by an ongoing construction project. Much of the building is closed and remains an active construction zone, with a few committee hearing rooms, the House and Senate chambers and lawmaker offices still open.

Members of the public can enter the Capitol through a door on State Street, across the street from Willamette University. They’ll go through metal detectors and bag screens, security measures added last year in response to a 2020 incident in which armed protesters breached the Capitol.

People can testify on bills remotely or in-person in hearing rooms, as well as submit written testimony. The Legislature’s website (oregonlegislature.gov) displays agendas and bills, and people can follow links to submit written testimony or sign up to testify during a meeting. 

The website will also live-stream committee hearings and floor votes.

Lawmakers plan to address Oregon’s behavioral health and addiction crisis, which is linked to concerns like homelessness, slow patient transfers from jails into the Oregon State Hospital and a lack of access to treatment in community mental health programs.

Lawmakers will tackle the situation in different ways, said Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland and chair of the House Committee on Behavioral Health and Health Care. Lawmakers need to prioritize community mental health programs, which can provide treatment to people early before a problem worsens but often lack needed resources and workers, he said.

When patients leave Oregon State Hospital and return to their communities, they often need community mental health programs to aid in their recovery. Nosse said the state also needs to build more residential facilities in Oregon for people with behavioral health needs who need shelter and care.

Public defenders – Oregon faces a lack of public defenders, who are court-appointed attorneys to represent people facing criminal charges when they can’t afford their own lawyer.

The problem impacts hundreds of Oregonians: About 800 people lacked representation in November, state data show. The problem carries legal risks because it delays the defendants’ day in court for a speedy trial, as required by the U.S. Constitution. The state constitution also calls for courts to administer justice “without delay.”

State lawmakers in December gave the state’s Public Defense Services Commission $10 million to address the issue. The commission, which is responsible for public defenders statewide, has to submit a plan to lawmakers by the end of this month. 

Lawmakers will look for ways to get more money so public defender offices can hire and retain staff to manage soaring caseloads, though it’s uncertain how much that will be. 

They also want to see more attorneys enter the field in the long-term. One bill would help public defenders pay off student loans and potentially aid with recruitment and retention. The legislation would offer a long-term hook: $20,000 a year for up to 10 years, or $200,000 to pay off student loans.

Lawmakers expect the situation will need long-term attention. Another bill would require the commission to study the issue and report back by the end of 2024.

Education – Lawmakers have introduced more than 100 education-related bills, many of which aim to tackle workforce shortages, increase accountability for school quality and improve conditions for students with disabilities.

Two bills introduced by Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis, would increase money and staff dedicated to improving graduation rates and post-secondary enrollment for students with disabilities. 

Chair of the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, introduced a bill directing the Department of Education to study the adequacy of state education and how the department can play a larger oversight role. 

Dembrow said legislators this session will face challenges coming to a shortlist of priorities. He described the state’s education budget as “woefully underfunded,” and in need of more than $500 million to meet schools’ needs.

Environment – Water quantity and quality issues across the state will take center stage. House Bill 2813 would require the Oregon Health Authority to ensure that communities in the state have access to safe drinking water. The department is responsible for ensuring water safety for public water systems in Oregon, but it is not obligated to guarantee safe drinking water for people who rely on private wells for their drinking water. 

Two bills sponsored by Republicans, Senate Bill 47 and House Bill 2121, would transfer air and water quality regulations on agricultural land and industries from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

Democrats are proposing state agencies more closely regulate industrial livestock and dairy operations. Senate Bill 399 would limit water use for confined animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs, and House Bill 2667 would put a pause on all new CAFOs for the next several years.

Governor Kotek Names Key Staff In Governor’s Office

Governor Tina Kotek has announced several appointees to her staff, among them a deputy chief of staff who will oversee agencies, a communications director, and a former state representative who will advise her on natural resources and climate change.

Among the prominent hires to her staff, most of them policy advisers:

• Chris Warner as deputy chief of staff for a newly created Office of Public Administration, which will give him wide latitude to oversee state agencies. Warner comes from the Portland Bureau of Transportation, where he became assistant director in 2016 and its director since June 2019. He has worked in government at all levels. From 2003 to 2010, he was legislative director and a top assistant to Gov. Ted Kulongoski. He helped shepherd passage of the 2009 Jobs and Transportation Act, which at $1 billion was the largest such spending plan until 2017.

He also worked for U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith, and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio.

• An Do as director of communications and public affairs, starting Jan. 19, which will enable her to speak for the governor. She has spent almost two years as executive director of Planned Parenthood Associates of Oregon, for which she was also its political director. She led the campaign against a 2018 ballot measure that would have barred public funds for abortions, except in specified instances. Oregon has used state money for abortions since a federal restriction took effect in 1976. (Voters rejected Measure 106.)

She also was a social worker in alternative high schools in Portland and Brooklyn, N.Y.

• Karin Power, who just completed three terms as a Democratic state representative from District 41 (Milwaukie), as a natural resources and climate adviser. She had taken leave from her job as interim director of Business for a Better Portland, where she was hired in July. Before she was elected to the Oregon House in 2016, Power was a Milwaukie city councilor and associate general counsel for the Freshwater Trust.

She was appointed to the governing board of Clackamas Community College last fall.

Other appointees

Most of the other appointees have some experience in state government. They are listed below.

• Vince Porter, adviser for economic development and workforce. He had been director of Regence Health Policy Center for eight months, director of government affairs at Cambia Health Solutions since 2017, and a vice president at Strategies 360 from 2016 to 2017.

• Kelly Scannell Brooks, transportation and infrastructure adviser. She has been assistant city manager in Milwaukie since 2017, and was an official in the Portland regional office of the Oregon Department of Transportation from 2011 to 2017.

• Geoff Huntington, senior natural resources adviser. Most recently he was Elliott State Forest project manager for the Department of State Lands. The 2022 Legislature kept the south coast forest in public ownership for research purposes, but severed a prior requirement for it to produce income from timber sales for the Common School Fund. He has taught in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University, and was executive director of the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and deputy director of the Oregon Department of Water Resources.

• Doug Grafe, wildfire and emergency response adviser. Grafe led state programs created by the 2021 Legislature to lessen the effects of severe wildfires and help communities plan to avert them. Gov. Brown named him to that job after 17 years at the Oregon Department of Forestry, where he was chief of fire protection.

• Rachel Currans-Henry, health and human services adviser. She has worked as strategic initiatives administrator in aging and disability services at the Department of Human Services, and in the COVID-19 response and recovery unit of the Oregon Health Authority.

• Maya Crawford Peacock, executive appointments director. She led the Lawyers Campaign for Justice, a nonprofit that aims to broaden access to legal representation.

• Constantin Severe, public safety adviser, the same job he had with Gov. Brown. Severe had been a lawyer with Metropolitan Public Defender in Portland and director of Portland’s Independent Police Review.

• Amelia Porterfield, regional solutions director. For the past three years, she has been director of government affairs for The Nature Conservancy. She was a top aide to Kotek when Kotek led House Democrats from mid-2011 until 2013 — when the House was tied 30-30 — and then her first chief of staff (for three years) after Democrats gained a majority and Kotek became House speaker.

New Military Veterans Suicide Crisis Care Benefit Takes Effect

Effective yesterday, military veterans in acute suicidal crisis can go to any Veterans Administration (VA) or non-VA healthcare facility for emergency health care at no cost.  The new benefit includes inpatient or crisis residential care for up to 30 days and outpatient care for up to 90 days.

Oregon’s Department of Veterans Affairs (ODVA) says veterans do not need to be enrolled in VA health care to use this benefit.  It says this benefit expansion will increase access to acute suicide care for up to 9,000,000 veterans not enrolled in the VA system.

The final policy, which took effect 1/17, allows the VA to:

  • Provide, pay for, or reimburse for treatment of eligible individuals’ emergency suicide care, transportation costs, and follow-up care at a VA or non-VA facility for up to 30 days of inpatient care and 90 days of outpatient care.
  • Make appropriate referrals for care following the period of emergency suicide care.
  • Determine eligibility for other VA services and benefits.
  • Refer eligible individuals for appropriate VA programs and benefits following the period of emergency suicide care.

Eligible people, regardless of VA enrollment status, are:

  • Veterans who were discharged or released from active duty after more than 24 months of active service under conditions other than dishonorable.
  • Former members of the armed forces, including reserve service members, who served more than 100 days under a combat exclusion or in support of a contingency operation either directly or by operating an unmanned aerial vehicle from another location who were discharged under conditions other than dishonorable.
  • Former members of the armed forces who were the victim of a physical assault of a sexual nature, a battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment while serving in the armed forces.

ODVA says, “If you or someone you know is struggling: Don’t wait. Reach out. Visit www.va.gov/REACH for resources and information, or call 988 (then press 1) to quickly connect with caring, qualified crisis support 24/7.”

Energy Trust Of Oregon Says New Federal Tax Credits Available For Cost-Cutting Home Energy Upgrades

Starting this year, more resources are available to help people cut their energy use and lower their energy bills. New federal tax credits are available as of Jan. 1 for energy upgrades that could make homes more energy-efficient and comfortable, Energy Trust of Oregon says. 

The credits are part of the Inflation Reduction Act, which makes it easier for people to cut their energy use. The new tax credits, together with cash incentives already offered by Energy Trust of Oregon for both electric and natural gas upgrades, mean utility customers in Oregon and Southwest Washington can save more on items and equipment that may lead to a significant reduction in energy costs.  

“We’ve been helping people save energy for more than 20 years, and we know that using less energy does more than save money. It makes our communities more resilient,” said Michael Colgrove, executive director of Energy Trust of Oregon. “We’re glad to see this historic investment in energy efficiency that benefits families and communities here in the Pacific Northwest.”

In addition to the energy efficiency tax credits, the Inflation Reduction Act also updated and extended tax credits for investments in renewable energy and battery storage systems.  

As of Jan. 1, federal tax credits are available for the following upgrades, which can also be combined with incentives from Energy Trust for customers of Portland General Electric, Pacific Power, NW Natural, Cascade Natural Gas and Avista.  

Item  Federal Tax Credit 
(30% of total cost, up to cap listed below)  
2023 Energy Trust Incentive  
Insulation  Up to $1,200  Up to $1.50 per square foot 
Windows  Up to $600  Up to $1.50 per square foot depending on efficiency rating 
Heat pump (warms and cools spaces) Up to $2,000  Up to $1,000  
Heat pump water heater, also called hybrid water heater Up to $2,000  Up to $700 instant discount on select models at participating retailers
Central air conditioning Up to $600 $100-$250 depending on SEER rating 
Natural gas furnace Up to $600 Up to $1,000 
Natural gas water heater Up to $600 $100 from participating retailers and up to $400 for tankless natural gas water heaters  
Solar 30% for solar systems  30% also available for battery storage with new or existing systems. Solar incentives vary. Find the most up-to-date incentive criteria here.  

*Requirements for federal tax credits and Energy Trust incentives may differ. 

*There is an annual cap on federal tax credits of $1,200, with sub-caps on individual items. Homeowners can also receive up to $2,000 (not under the $1,200 cap) for a heat pump or a heat pump water heater. 
*Some solar projects may also quality for state rebates 

 Customers making these upgrades in 2023 can receive Energy Trust incentives when purchasing qualified equipment from a retailer or through an Energy Trust trade ally – trusted, qualified contractors in Oregon and Southwest Washington. Customers can then claim the corresponding tax credits when filing their 2023 tax return in 2024.

To determine which energy upgrades may be most helpful for your home, Energy Trust provides a free online home assessment. You can also connect with a home energy advisor who can answer questions about specific upgrades or can talk through how to prioritize which upgrades to make. Energy Trust can also connect you to its network of experienced contractors who can guide you through the installation process. 

Rebates, greater support for families with lower incomes 

In addition to these tax credits, the Inflation Reduction Act includes the development of rebate programs for energy efficient products and investments. In Oregon, these rebates will be developed and administered by the Oregon Department of Energy. Several of those rebates will go toward greater support for households with low to moderate incomes.  

The rebates, which will become available later this year or in 2024, may include up to $8,000 toward heat pumps, which can reduce energy costs by as much as 50% depending on the home’s current heating system and can also cool spaces during warmer weather. Families with lower incomes will also be eligible to receive higher rebates for heat pump water heaters and installing insulation.  

“On top of earning less money, families with lower incomes end up spending a higher share of their income on energy bills,” said Tracy Scott, director of energy programs at Energy Trust. “By reducing the cost of upgrades, these investments will help bring the benefits of energy efficiency and renewable energy to far more people.”  

Energy Trust also offers greater support for people and families with lower to moderate incomes including larger cash incentives for home energy upgrades, including solar installations

New Owner Of Goonies House In Astoria Plans To Turn It Into A Haven For Fans

Goonies fan Behman Zakeri now owns the home featured in the iconic Steven Spielberg film, and he plans to turn it into a haven for fans!

Zakeri purchased the Oregon home for $1.65 million and says he will decorate the home to look like it did in the 1985 film. He even wants to create the contraption that will open the front gate, but he still needs to figure out how to get a chicken to lay an egg at the right moment…

As for guests? “You just can’t let people in unless they stand on the tree stump and do the truffle shuffle,” Zakeri said.

Zakeri is a Kansas City entrepreneur who owns a business that sells collectible trading cards. He also has a Bury The Hatchet franchise, plays in poker tournaments, and is a huge Kansas City Chiefs fan.

It’s rare to see Zakeri without a Chiefs sweatshirt on, but for our interview, he was wearing his white “Goonies” t-shirt (he has more than one).

“This moment is completely surreal,” he told us. “It was a childhood dream. From the time I saw the ‘Goonies’ when I was eight years old, I’ve dreamed of someday owning the ‘Goonies’ house and finding One-Eyed Willy’s treasure so this is unbelievable. It really is.”

Zakeri, who bought the house for $1.65 million, said he sees himself as a caretaker of the property.

“The reason I’m buying it is for the community,” Zakeri said. “Somebody’s got to be the caretaker, somebody’s got to preserve the landmark. Somebody has to keep it original and not get demoed.”

He said he and wife Liz only plan to live in Astoria part-time.

The house, which is in a residential neighborhood in the coastal Oregon city of Astoria, has attracted fans of the movie for years. Its new owner hopes to keep it accessible for tourists who want to pay a visit. 

“Goonies are welcome,” Zakeri said. 

He said he has no problem with fans taking selfies at the property — he was once one himself — and only asked that they be respectful of the surrounding neighborhood.

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