Year in review: Malheur County headlines of 2016

Lead detected in water at schools throughout Malheur County caused concern for staff and parents. (Malheur Enterprise/FILE)

VALE – From unemployment to water supply to a proposed national monument over the vast Owyhee Canyonlands, Malheur Enterprise readers faced an array of news in 2016.

Here are some of the key local stories of the year from the pages of the Malheur Enterprise.

Wage Hike

In February, the Oregon Senate passed Senate Bill 1532, which increased the minimum wage up in Oregon. The program is being phased across three geographic locations in Oregon. The wage will top out in the Portland area at $14.75 an hour; $13.50 in medium-sized population areas and $12.50 in Oregon’s low-population areas.

The regions’ legislators – Oregon Sen. Ted Ferrioli and Rep. Cliff Bentz both opposed the bill, and a busload of Malheur County business people traveled to protest the wage plan – but to no avail.

Water outlook improves

Also in February the first hint of a good water year for area agriculturists appeared. The month started well with the statewide average of snowpack measuring 121 percent of normal, boosted by above-normal precipitation in January.

The Owyhee Basin recorded the highest in the state for snow-water equivalent at 153 percent of normal. In April the Owyhee Reservoir was 60 percent full. It had been several years since the reservoir was that full that early in the season.

County voters say no

In March, Malheur County voters shot down the Owyhee Canyonlands national monument in a non-binding referendum by a resounding 90 percent.

A coalition of environmental groups and outdoor recreation businesses throughout 2016 promoted the monument, hoping President Obama would use the Antiquities Act to conserve 2.5 million acres of land in Malheur County as his term comes to an end.

The proposal also sparked debate in Salem, where in late May ranchers and other opponents including Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe testified before the House Interim Committee on Rural Communities, Land Use and Water. In July a group of livestock producers, including Producers Livestock in Vale, donated more than $17,000 to anti-monument efforts.

Bond Measure

Area educational institutions began to gear up for separate bond campaigns in the spring. Vale, Nyssa, Adrian school districts along with Treasure Valley Community College all designed bond proposals for the Nov. 8 ballot.

Nyssa and Adrian gained voter approval first, followed by Vale’s $8 million bond levy in November. The wins at the polls allow the school districts to tap into a state program that provides up to $4 million match for local school district improvement projects.

The funds in Nyssa will be used for a new middle school, while Adrian is building a new gym. The Vale bond will replace the aging middle school and pay for security and other upgrades at schools throughout the district. Voters rejected the TVCC bond, which would have upgraded facilities and added to the vocational technical offerings at the Ontario-based college.

Sheriff’s Race

Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe faced two opponents for the county’s top cop spot. Former undersheriff Brad Williams and current deputy Casey Walker both challenged him in the race.

Walker – who began a write-in campaign in August – and Williams lost out to Wolfe in the November election.

Boy dies in fire

In late July, a Vale house fire claimed the life of 8-year-old Aiden Kinard. The blaze destroyed the home on Bully Creek Road. Four other family members were injured in the blaze.

Water safety

The start of the school year in August saw the Vale School District continuing a testing effort to detect lead in its water. The testing coincided with efforts statewide to determine lead levels in school water systems.

In October the district notified parents of elevated levels of lead found in the water at two elementary schools, the middle school and the Oregon Trail Learning Academy. Faucets were shut down in some sites as testing and repairs continue.

Poverty report

A report from Children’s First of Oregon in November showed two out of five youth in Malheur County live in poverty. The organization reported a poverty rate of 38 percent in Malheur County

Jobless rate dips

The county unemployment rate hit a 10-year low in October according to statistics from the Oregon Employment Department. The county listed an unemployment rate of 4.8 percent in October, down from a 5.2 percent mark a year earlier.

TVCC payroll

In December, the Malheur Enterprise broke the story that 16 college employees earn more than 100,000 a year, even as enrollment at the institution fell and budget cuts loomed.