Former Oregon Congresswoman Elizabeth Furse filed two weeks ago for the District 4 seat on the Washington County Board of Commissioners. In doing so, she became the first to take on first-term incumbent Commissioner Bob Terry.
Oregon Public Broadcasting contacted Terry to get his reaction to Furse’s announcement. In a brief interview, the Fisher Farms nursery owner said the county already is heading in the right direction, noting that the reserve fund is healthy and that the county carries little to no debt.
He added this: "And we’ve constantly been the lowest unemployed county in the state." That’s impressive, if true. PolitiFact Oregon decided to check.
We called Nick Beleiciks, a state employment economist, who walked us through a website containing the annual average unemployment rates by county. The data go back to 1990. Before that, only statewide figures were tracked, Beleiciks said.
"Washington County had the lowest (or tied for the lowest) annual average unemployment rate in 1990, 2000, and 2006," he wrote in a follow-up email. "Washington County generally has the third or fourth lowest unemployment rate among Oregon’s counties. The county’s worst rank for unemployment rate was 9th lowest in 2009."
So the county registered the lowest average annual unemployment rate in Oregon only three times in the past 23 years. The most recent figures, from November 2013, show Benton County’s 5.7 percent rate as lowest in the state. Hood River is second at 5.7 percent, with Washington County third at 6 percent.
We called Terry to get his response.
"There are two ways of interpreting that," he said. "When I was asked that question, I was thinking of the four-county region (Washington, Multnomah, Clackamas and Clark counties). Among those, it has consistently been the lowest. If you look at the entire state, which is what I actually did say, the proper word would be one of the lower. I’ll be more careful about how I state that in the future."
He added, "You need to look at the population bases of the counties we’re talking about. None of them is anywhere near as big as we are. We are a leading contributor to the coffers of the state of Oregon."
Washington County has long touted its economic vitality, with good reason. It’s home to some of the state’s biggest and most successful businesses, such as Nike, Intel, Tektronix and Columbia Sportswear.
"Washington County does, in fact, have a very important place in Oregon’s economy," said Tim Duy, senior director of the Oregon Economic Forum at the University of Oregon. "Clearly, it has a large employment base with relatively high salaries."
Mark McMullen, Oregon state economist, told us that the county’s computer and electronic producers alone account for more than 20 percent of overall Gross State Product, and the majority of GSP growth in recent years. Sliced another way, the county over the past four years has been responsible for one-third of all statewide wage and job gains, McMullen said.
Terry is correct in talking about Washington County’s large jobs base. Its 260,900 jobs as of November 2013 dwarf, say, Hood River County’s 11,030 jobs.
But those figures, while impressive, don’t support Terry’s statement about Washington County "constantly" leading the state in low unemployment rates.
Statewide, Washington County has ranked third behind Benton and Hood River counties since November 2012, according to state data. Even looking just at the four-county metro area, to which Terry said he should have limited his comments, Clackamas County has had a lower annual unemployment average than Washington County five times since 1990. Twice, in 1999 and 2002, the counties tied.
Terry noted, in follow-up comments, that Washington County has had and continues to have a significant role in powering the state’s economy. Two state economists and a wealth of data support that idea.
But his claim to OPB was that the county has "constantly been the lowest unemployed county in the state." The county has led or tied for the lead in that category only three times in the past 23 years, though it has often had the third- or fourth-lowest rate.
By saying "constantly," "lowest" and "in the state," Terry left himself no wiggle room. The numbers don’t bear out his initial claim. We rate it False.