Where Have All the Children Gone?

Six years after voters agreed to pay for a center for abused children, it has yet to serve its first customer.

In 1996, Multnomah County voters followed their hearts and opened their wallets, approving a $79.7 million safety bond measure. Only $4.6 million of that levy was designated for what was called a "child-abuse center," but for many voters that was reason enough to support the entire measure.

Supporters illustrated their case with images of children spending their days in police cars waiting for foster-home spots to open. In fact, the only voters' pamphlet statement favoring the measure, titled "Measure 26-45 Will Help Abused and Neglected Children" ignored the far more costly jails component of the bond entirely. Instead, that statement focused on a plan to build a 16-bed "receiving center" to which cops could bring abused kids for temporary shelter.

But between that vote and today, things went very, very wrong.

First, the price tag crept ever higher. From the original $4.6 million, the cost of building the facility rose to "in no case to exceed $7 million" in September 1999 to what looks to be a final price tag of just under $13 million. (Such inflation is common, according to county auditor Suzanne Flynn, who last week blasted county officials for sloppy oversight of four other capital projects.).

And the story gets worse. Although the 16-bed facility was finally completed in July, it has yet to serve a single child. That's because in the six years since voters approved the center, county officials have failed to come up with an operating budget.

At least one county commissioner saw this coming. In December 2000, Lisa Naito wrote a memo to her colleagues suggesting scrapping the project if there were no operating funds.

Then-County Chair Bev Stein responded with a plan under which the county would use its designation as a Federally Qualified Health Center to obtain $1 million a year from Uncle Sam.

Meanwhile, however, questions began to arise about whether there was really demand for the center's services. In the fall of 2001, the state, which is actually responsible for child welfare, revised its forecasts for the number of children who needed temporary housing. Rather than 16, state officials said that the average number of kids who would need service was closer to three.

Nonetheless, construction of the receiving center and the renovation of two other adjacent buildings moved forward. (The other buildings would be occupied by staff from the Portland Police Bureau, Multnomah County District Attorney's office and various other county functions).

But then in March of this year, a top county health-department official concluded that using federal dollars to operate the center might jeopardize up to $15 million in other federal support that the county receives. That left the project near completion but short nearly a quarter-million dollars.

Naito and Commissioner Maria Rojo de Steffey were upset by the sudden change of course.

Last week, they notified their colleagues that they intend to push for a vote that will supply operating money from the county's general-fund budget if other money isn't found quickly.

"We don't want to put the federal dollars at risk but don't think that avenue has been explored adequately," Naito says.

The man who originally sponsored the children's receiving center, City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, is also pushing for action. He dismisses the notion that abused kids are any less need of services today than they were in 1996, when he was a county commissioner and the leading proponent of building the receiving center. "I'm very frustrated with the way things have gone," Saltzman says. "I'd say that we should just open the doors and worry about fine-tuning the details later."

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