Ballots for the May 17 primary election started to appear in local mailboxes this week and for registered Democrats, they have a choice between incumbent Pat Malone and challenger Helen Higgins for who they want to move forward in the race for Position 1 on the Benton County Board of Commissioners.

Republican Bill Currier also filed as a candidate for the commissioner’s seat but is unchallenged in the primary election. Either Higgins or Malone will advance to the Nov. 8 general election and go up against Currier.

Other candidates could end up on the November ballot as well with candidates running as independents or those from a minor party eligible to file beginning June 1.

The Philomath News sent questions to all three candidates last week as part of an effort to familiarize them more with voters. Included here are responses from the two Democratic candidates in the only contested race.

Higgins, who lives in the Lewisburg area in unincorporated Benton County, has worked for several years as the chief executive officer at the Boys & Girls Club of Corvallis. She served on the Corvallis School Board for five years and has been involved with a variety of other organizations. Her educational background includes a bachelor’s degree from the University of Oregon and a micro master’s degree from Boise State University.

Malone, who lives in Kings Valley, owns a Christmas tree farm and has been serving as a Benton County commissioner since he was elected to the position in 2018. He formerly served as an elected official on the Benton County Water and Soil Conservation District and has been involved with many other organizations. His educational background includes bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Oregon.

1. What is your primary motivation for running for a county commissioner position?

HIGGINS: There are significant issues and opportunities facing our county in the years ahead. Challenges include housing affordability, adequate infrastructure to support growth, reconnecting our communities, responding to wildfire and drought conditions, and improving mental health and addiction services for area residents. These are problems we can solve with strong leadership and by working together. I have experience bringing people together and solving problems, and I want to use this experience to help our county through active engagement with the community and smart planning. Serving our community in this capacity motivates me to run.

MALONE: It’s an honor to serve as commissioner. I’m intrigued with the broad spectrum of issues that come before me every week. I see the needs and know I can help solve our challenges.

I’m optimistic about our future. Many people put in countless hours to create the opportunities we have right now to make Benton County a better place to live.

My experience in talking with legislators for the last 25 years is paying dividends for Benton County. No one does this job by themselves. It takes long-term commitment to find consensus.

Tree farming helped me develop long-term planning skills including budgeting. In the Christmas tree business, when your paycheck comes once a year, you learn to be careful. I take spending other people’s money seriously. I look forward to continuing to represent all of Benton County.  

2. What makes you the most qualified candidate for this position?

HIGGINS: My broad business skills gained over 18 years at Hewlett Packard, in combination with my 16 years of experience as the director of a local social service agency, the Boys & Girls Club of Corvallis, has shaped me into a highly effective problem-solver, advocate, convener and community facilitator. I will hit the ground running to serve the needs of all Benton County residents. I have built a broad network of partners that are vital to our county’s ability to address the issues we face over the next four years and beyond. I know how to build strategic plans, deploy resources, manage within a budget, measure progress and celebrate the success.

My solid working relationships with our business, education, agriculture, and local, state and government partners, coupled with my ability to garner stakeholder perspective/input, will make me an effective county commissioner.

MALONE: My 3-plus years of experience as commissioner and 20-some prior years on various county boards make me most qualified. I listen, ask questions and search for consensus. My wife says I fly in a 747 — that I see the big picture. From my farm business experience, I see long-term 10 to 80 years out. I’m experienced in forging partnerships with the other levels of government the county has to work with from cities to other counties to the state and federal agencies and our elected representatives. My widespread endorsements show that I have the trust of the people I work with in this job. My background as a rural fire chief has taught me to think about public safety both short term and long term. My lifelong interest in sustainable living and farming carries over to my stewardship of the county.

3. What is the biggest challenge facing the county? How would you address it if elected?

HIGGINS: I think housing availability and housing costs are a top priority for our community. The fact is that how we build and support the housing inventory is foundational to many of the issues we face, from homelessness to a strong workforce and a thriving community. It starts with housing our residents.

My plans for increasing the local housing stock would include working to recruit investment from nonprofit builders who specialize in affordable, quality apartments, and work with businesses who own or have access to land to build employer assisted housing to address our need to house our local workforce.

MALONE: Houselessness. There is not one solution. Let’s build phase two of the Third Street Commons. Let’s support groups that work on this challenge by thinking long-term as well as immediate need.

The HOPE Board, a collaboration between Corvallis and the County, has 12 recommendations.  I have prioritized No. 6: “facilitating sheltering system with project management and coordination.” This preparation allowed Sen. Gelser Blouin‘s bill to provide HOPE $1 million to help solve our houselessness crisis.

Benton County can bring together stakeholders and be a conduit for state and federal monies. I’ll continue exploring tiny homes, microshelters and manufactured homes. House Bill 4064, which prevents local governments from prohibiting siting of prefabricated structures in all residential zones, is a step forward.  

This crisis in housing has been decades in the making and it will take a sustained long-term effort to make significant progress. Local governments can’t do it on our own.

4. How would you describe the overall state of the county?

HIGGINS: There are so many opportunities in front of us. We have a powerhouse university producing world-class research and technologies, a thriving medical campus serving communities in and beyond Benton County, a highly successful agriculture sector, new restaurants and businesses opening all the time.

But, we are at a crossroad in our county. Our businesses rely on the growth of our communities and tourism to sustain them. We have a workforce shortage to fill jobs that educate and care for our residents. Our housing inventory makes it nearly impossible to find an affordable home for an average-income resident. And we need to update aging infrastructure while also finding ways to build for our future growth.

I believe we can address these issues by capitalizing on the entrepreneurial spirit of our engaged community, encourage and support creativity and innovation, and use our tools as elected officials to create smart and effective policies.

MALONE: I’m optimistic for the future. The last several years all kinds of people, nonprofits and government agencies have laid the foundations to make significant progress on the biggest challenges we face: homelessness, a new justice center, a respite center and alternative means of transportation to decrease our carbon footprint. It took collaboration and hard work to get us to this point. I think there is finally a recognition that cities and counties will need significant help from the state and federal governments to solve these challenges.

5. If you received a $1 million grant to use for the county any way you wanted, what would you do with it and why?

HIGGINS: Mental health, addiction and community safety — 35%. Emergency response and exit routes, wildfire mitigation — 30%.  Infrastructure: water, roads, bridges — 30%. Economic development — 5%.

To curb homelessness and help people address addiction, we need to increase services, safe spaces and build our workforce of mental health and addiction professionals.

To increase our resiliency and preparation for climate change impacts, I would invest in emergency response preparation, work with residents to ensure we have managed spaces to reduce fire danger, and ensure that those living in the counties have designated and safe routes to evacuate. And I would work with farmers to help plan for and mitigate the impacts of climate change. The county has a responsibility to maintain the infrastructure and roads, including access to water. To keep our communities vibrant and thriving, investing in economic development will generate additional funding to support the services our communities need and want.

MALONE: I would get things started as a partner on phase two of the Third Street Commons. $1 million won’t build it, but could provide the site research, designing, drafting the plans, obtaining permits and maybe cover the beginnings of the actual footprint.

I’d like to use $100,000 for pilot programs with microshelters. These are the kinds of pilot programs that help work out what the questions might be before larger enterprises can start. There is not one answer to this challenge. All levels of government and local nonprofits need to be engaged in this effort.

The lack of housing, the cost of housing, affects all kinds of other challenges, such as keeping Benton County economically strong. It is the place to start that will have the most impact.

Clarification: A previous version of this story reported that Higgins lived in Corvallis. Although Corvallis is the city listed with her postal address, she actually lives in Lewisburg, an unincorporated community in Benton County.

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.