Sunday, June 18, 2023

By:  Janea Melido

Redmond Spokesman

On Saturday, June 17, residents of Deschutes County gathered at the Ridgeview High School auditorium for U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley’s annual town hall.

Attendees had the opportunity to voice their concerns on a variety of topics via a randomized ticket number that was called out by Merkley.

The town hall commenced with an introduction from Mayor Ed Fitch. Merkley then spotlighted NeighborImpact, an organization that represents and serves economically disadvantaged residents in Central Oregon. Attendees then brought up concerns about immigration, marijuana and medicare.

With graduation season in session, there were comments regarding student debt from a concerned parent.

Merkley acknowledged the burden that college tuition can have on students and families and how that can deter prospective students from considering college as an option.

“We’re pushing for far lower interest rates on the federal loan, because it makes a difference if it’s two percent or six percent,” Merkley said. “And apart from that, we have to figure out how we can make our public universities debt-free. Doesn’t mean parents don’t contribute anything … but it’s absolutely not the right policy to have this huge barrier to higher education.”Other hot topics included environmental concerns about protecting the Owyhee Canyonlands and the future of the Snake River Dams, which impede fish passage but help agriculture in the region.

A Marine Corp Vietnam veteran gave an emotional testimony about the lack of staffing at the Central Oregon Vet Center after their director was promoted to a different position 10 months prior.

“She left and they put a temporary person in her position, but they don’t have enough staff,” he said. “There are days that the Vet Center cannot be open. And we’ve had in this past couple weeks more than one suicide.”

Applause erupted from the crowd and Merkley thanked him for his service. The senator followed up with the veteran to get his information and said he will “make lots of phone calls.”

The town hall lasted for about an hour and ended with final comments from both Merkley and Fitch. Merkley has held open town halls in each Oregon county every year since taking office in 2009. This town hall is his 32nd of the year and 536th overall.

“Republics die without citizen engagement,” he said.