While in Washington D.C. last week for the 2016 National Association of Counties Legislative Conference, Wasco County Commission Chair Rod Runyon received unexpected but good news: The county is being awarded a $291,780 grant.
Runyon got the news from Emily Ackland, AOC’s county road program manager.
“She [Ackland] said ‘I don’t know what happened, maybe it’s because we’re here,’” Runyon said. “I thought we were cut and when I texted [public works director] Art Smith, he thought we were cut. It’s pretty exciting.”
The Federal Lands Access Program grant will pay for the Tygh Valley-Wamic Road Improvements project, which consists of new pavement, guardrail and signs starting in Tygh Valley and going up Wamic Grade. The total length of the project is 0.75 miles.
Runyon went to the conference, which brings over 2,000 elected and appointed county officials together from across the country, because he serves on NACo’s Community, Economic and Workforce Development Steering Committee.
Runyon was also there as a board member for NORCOR — the regional jail that serves Wasco, Hood River, Sherman and Gilliam counties.
“We have to find a new model for NORCOR and that’s what we are researching or working towards,” Runyon said. “Mental health across the nation is a huge thing. You’ve got people being incarcerated that really don’t need to be in [jail]. They’re not criminals. Their big problem is they’re sick. Some have committed serious crimes and they need to be incarcerated but there are some that somehow get dropped off at a county jail.”
Runyon, along with Hood River County Commissioner Karen Joplin, met with Andrew Smith, a liaison for the AOC and Katie Green, correctional program specialist for the National Institute of Corrections.
“I was just along for the ride,” Runyon said. “It was my job to be quiet and ask a question when it became absolutely urgent.”
They also met with six people from the department of justice who were impressed with NORCOR’s unique regional facility.
“They were already versed on who we were and what we were doing,” Runyon said. “They were really excited about what we were doing so we left there feeling really good. They came up with two or three foundations, to help with mental illness and incarceration. Hopefully something will come out of that in the next few months or six months or over the next year. There’s some deadlines looming on a couple of them. I think it’s going to be an awesome thing.”
Runyon was reminded that the mental health issue is a national one. On a grander scale, Los Angeles County averages 18,000 prisoners a day and 30-50 percent of them are mental health cases that should be handled differently.
“Jails across the country are becoming mental health facilities and it’s costing a fortune,” Runyon said.
Hood River has joined 200 counties across the country for a NACo program called “Steeping Up” to reduce mental illness in jails. At Wednesday’s Wasco County meeting, Runyon recommended his fellow commissioners join as well.
Runyon, who is co-chair of the veterans committee in Salem, had the opportunity to meet with Oregon senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden and Congressman Greg Walden.
Runyon noted when a veteran is arrested but hasn’t been convicted and gets sick, counties end up paying the bill instead of the VA.
“That’s not right and that’s a big deal back east, too,” Runyon said. “That was one of the messages and issues I kept bringing up when I had the chance to talk to those three [Merkley, Runyon, Walden]. There’s a big move in Congress to look at that issue.”
Runyon was also treated to the Marine band.
“That was emotional,” Runyon said. “That was awesome. They were amazing. People were crying. I like that stuff. That’s why I’m involved in all the veterans’ things.”
Headlining the legislative conference were U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator John McCain as featured speakers.
“I made it a point to see McConnell and McCain when I saw they were on the agenda,” Runyon said. “Not that they’re my favorite people in the world, but you see them on TV all of the time and it’s good to see people in a different environment.”
Overall, Runyon said he enjoyed the conference more than any he’d been to.
“I think it was really worthwhile and right now I’m planning to go next year,” Runyon said. “And that’s usually something I don’t say right away but it was really worthwhile. I like to be busy and it was busy.”