Merkley talks coast issues in Coos County town hall

Coastal issues topped the list of questions Coos County residents asked Senator Jeff Merkley about during town hall Wednesday.

The Democratic senator, who holds a town hall in each Oregon county every year, would have normally visited the region in person, but instead spent a few minutes Wednesday helping guests navigate the Zoom call set up for his annual Coos County town hall.

The event started with North Bend Mayor Jessica Engelke introducing the senator. Merkley went on to recognize the work of Oregon Coast Community Action, virtually presenting Executive Director Kim Brick with a flag flown over the U.S. capitol and highlighting the organization’s need for volunteers.

Soon, the senator took questions and comments from the few-dozen county residents assembled on the call.

“I’ve been working from home out here in unincorporated Coos County for eight or 10 years now, and have been getting by on satellite internet and now 4G, but I really need something a little bit better to be able to effectively do my work,” said Michael Clary. “I just was hoping you could give us an update on how our money’s being in that area.

Merkley responded by pointing to his work as a member of the rural development appropriation subcommittee, which supported ReConnect broadband grants to provide funds for broadband expansion in rural communities.

Attendees also asked Merkley about several coastal issues.

Merkley discussed his support for the ShakeAlert earthquake alert system and for additional funding for dredging coastal ports.

“I’m still working on the Charleston component, by the way of pushing the Corps of Engineers to broaden their definition of the federal channel,” Merkley said. “Maybe in my new position I can push them even a little harder and faster in that regard.”

Merkley also touched on the recent announcement that the Jordan Cove Energy Project (the liquefied natural gas terminal and associated pipeline planned in Coos Bay) would be pausing its development.

“I think the conclusion that one can make with fairly high confidence is its time to move on from that project. That project is not going to happen,” Merkley said. “I realize were deep divisions in the community over it because it promised a lot of jobs and construction and the possibility of economic revitalization in various ways, but also has a lot of problematic aspects.”

Given the virtual format, the COVID-19 pandemic was front and center.

“One of the issues that I’ve been aware of over the last year is many of the resources that we had in the county have been used to support COVID-related issues. Which is great, but its left a big gap. Many of our nurses who did home visiting are doing contact tracing, our WIC services are definitely reduced,” said Renee Menkens, a nurse and volunteer with the county’s public health department.

Merkley said the Biden administration’s first COVID-19 relief package provided some funding to backfill pandemic-related costs for local public health departments, and that more funding would likely come under Biden’s proposed American Families Plan.

“Because healthcare is so essential to families,” Merkley said.