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White Bird Fly?
Imagine this: You dial 911 and get a recording "we're sorry, 911 only accepts calls from 8-5, please call back during normal business hours. We accept Visa, Mastercard, and American Express." Far fetched?
Not if you're one of the thousands of homeless, mentally ill or medically indigent Lane County residents who use the services at White Bird Clinic every year. White Bird is their 911.
When these folks call 911, they get patched into the White Bird crisis line. When Lane County Mental Health closes at 5 pm, their phone message says "call White Bird." Hundreds of psychologists, sheriffs and other professionals reach for White Bird in their Rolodexes every year.
When my friend Norman Riddle called and said White Bird was in trouble, I knew it was serious. Norman, a member of the Klamath Nation, has been a counselor at White Bird for the last 14 years. Norman is usually unflappable. He's seen just about every kind of crisis imaginable, and in his community activism he takes a philosophical view, tempered by the knowledge that change takes time and that you always need to have a sense of humor. Norman was worried, a bad sign.
White Bird's services are threatened by the same state budget axe that is chopping away at schools and human services. And the Legislature and Governor so far are unwilling to consider replacement revenue sources to make up for losses caused by the slow economy and an unbalanced tax system. White Bird's 24-hour crisis line could lose a third or more of its funding, forcing it to lay off staff and limit its hours.
We're on the way to becoming a society where even life-and-death emergency services are only available to those with insurance or the ability to pay. It's called rationing by social class.
I met Wren Arrington and Jose Alvarez at White Bird's converted bungalow in the West Campus neighborhood. With four other staffers and a dozen trained volunteers, they provide counseling to people in need of immediate help 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Arrington says they're prepared to handle almost anything — "sometimes people call and are suicidal, with the gun on their lap; others are having a mental health crisis and they've lost their meds, or maybe a housing crisis and they just lost their apartment. Some have eating disorders, or are sexual assault or child abuse victims".
They often get 30-40 calls per day, plus walk-ins. Their job is to intervene in those critical minutes that can make all the difference. Among their many cases in the last several weeks was the mom whose son had overdosed on pills and booze; they looked up the needed medical information on the Internet while getting the Cahoots van to take her son to the hospital. Two persons called saying they were on the verge of cutting themselves to provide some distraction from their unbearable emotional pain. A developmentally disabled man said it was too hard to come out of his home to deal with day-to-day living needs, and needed help.
You want to see living saints? They're right here in Eugene. But White Bird staff would be the last to call attention to what they're doing. They often put in 50 hours a week (getting paid for 40 ) — it's a labor of love and the kind of job that's hard to leave when things get busy. And given all the talk about providing public services more efficiently, with trained volunteers helping them on the phones 24 hours a day "the public gets a lot of bang for its buck" says Arrington.
On the wall in White Bird's living-room style front room is a large inscription: "White Bird is a collective environment organized to enable people to gain control of their social, emotional, and physical well-being." Maybe we should carve it in stone above the entrance to the state Capitol, substituting "Oregon" for White Bird. A reminder of what government is for.
Give our governor and legislators a call, and tell them it is simply unacceptable for those most in need to dial 911 — and get a recording.
Greg McLauchlan is a UO sociology professor who writes about social justice and urban livability issues.
Last fall the Board of County Commissioners referred six revenue measures to the voters. We lost all six. The technical term for this performance is an "oh-fer" (i.e., 0-for-6). Lately the county seems to have more "oh-fers" than the Detroit Tigers.
With a shortfall of revenue, the county has resorted to fee increases to pay for certain services. Cynics say it's just the law of supply and demand: If you're going to reduce the supply of services, you might as well reduce the demand by charging more for the services you still provide. In reality, we're not that clever. We're just broke.
Recently I supported a fee increase for developers seeking permits from the Land Management Division (LMD). I wasn't thrilled to charge more for permits, but LMD needs the money to do its job. The problem with a fee-based budget is that revenue goes down when building goes down. Critics claim that LMD has a natural incentive to grant permits for big multi-stage projects, so LMD can collect fees at each step of the way. (One critic says that LMD stands for "Let's Make a Deal.") I believe that LMD is more scrupulous than that, but I hope some day we can support LMD from the general fund again so we can avoid any appearance of bias. How comfortable would you feel in court if your opponent were paying the judge's salary?
While I supported the fee increase for LMD, I refused to impose an admission fee for the county park at Mount Pisgah. I'm happy to report that Pisgah is still free. When the board voted again on the Pisgah fee last week, I joined a 3-2 majority with Anna Morrison and Pete Sorenson to reject the proposed fee. If Anna and Pete oppose something together, it's probably a bad idea. (Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy team up more often than Anna and Pete.)
Why not charge for Pisgah? Stop and think about what makes that park special. It's not a boat ramp. It's not a water slide. It's nature. This park lacks the man-made amenities that have justified fees at other county parks. Pisgah is named after the biblical mountain where Moses stood when he first viewed the promised land. I reread the book of Deuteronomy the other day, and I somehow missed the part about Moses paying an admission fee.
I understand that the Parks Department needs $177,000 in new revenue to cover maintenance costs throughout the parks system. I've proposed fee increases totaling $130,000, including increases in fees that companies pay for large picnics at county parks. Last month I even gave tentative approval for a $2 fee at Pisgah. But on reflection, I think Lane County needs to have at least one major park that is always free for individuals and small groups. The best choice for that free park is Mount Pisgah — where nature, not man, did all the heavy lifting.
Even if you share Lane County's current fee-mania, it's hard to know where to draw the line. Why not charge the public a $2 fee to use the bathrooms in the county building? The arguments for a bathroom fee would be identical to the arguments for new fees at Mount Pisgah and LMD. The public uses the service; the cost to the county increases with each use; and we could probably extort the fee from people who are committed to using the service. There's no end to the possibilities once you accept the premise that users of a service should pay a fee for it.
But let's not blame the county staffers who are trying to scrape together money for their programs. The real fault lies with our collective lack of will to fund government adequately. The New York Times ran a story May 1 characterizing Oregon as the "Mississippi of the West." I e-mailed the story to my college buddy who lives in Mississippi, and he fired back, "I think that comparison is insulting to Mississippi." Ouch! Maybe we should charge a fee for ridiculing our state. That would put some money in the coffers.
Tom Lininger is county commissioner for the East Lane District.