By John L. Braese and Pat Caldwell
January storms along with frigid temperatures paralyzed Malheur County with record snowfall. More than 43 inches of snow dropped on the county during the winter onslaught.
WHY IT RANKS: Snow loads crushed commercial, industrial and residential property. Main highways open and shut with each storm, as did schools. The local onion industry was hit especially hard, suffering an estimated $100 million in damage
UPDATE: Local governments had to go it alone after federal authorities denied disaster relief. The agriculture industry went to work rebuilding, though a shortage of contractors slowed progress. Local governments and state officials subsequently modified how they deal with such monumental storms.
The saga of Anthony Montwheeler, 50, began on a foggy Monday morning Jan. 9 after a kidnapping turned deadly and a Vale man died in a crash on Oregon Highway 201. He was accused of killing Annita Harmon, an ex-wife, and being involved in a collision during a police pursuit that killed David Bates of Vale and injured his wife Jessica. Montwheeler had been released from the Oregon State Hospital less than a month earlier after claiming he had faked mental illness to avoid a prison sentence on an earlier kidnapping case.
WHY IT RANKS: Montwheeler’s case was unique because of his history with the state, the tragic death of a well-known Vale man and a public records battle fought by the Enterprise that eventually involved Gov. Kate Brown.
UPDATE: Since January, Montwheeler has been lodged in the Malheur County Jail as his case slowly moves through the state legal system. In June, Malheur County’s two circuit court judges were disqualified from the case because both men prosecuted a 2005 case involving Montwheeler. After the original judge chosen to hear the case stepped down, Multnomah Circuit Court Judge Tom Ryan was selected to oversee the matter.
Also in June, a judge ordered a new psychiatric evaluation to determine if Monthwheeler was competent to stand trial. Later that same month, Jessica Bates notified the state she would seek $5 million for its role in freeing him from the custody.
This month, a trial date for Montwheeler was set for September 2019.
RAIL DEPOT SET FOR COUNTY
The rail shipping facility was lifted off the ground largely through the work of state Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario. Bentz worked to ensure a multimillion-dollar transportation package passed by the Oregon Legislature in June included funding for a rail shipping depot in the county.
WHY IT RANKS: The rail shipping facility is the biggest potential economic engine for the county since Snake River Correctional Institution was built more than 25 years ago. The depot is projected to generate jobs and boost the county’s onion industry.
UPDATE: In late November, three properties north of Nyssa were selected to be the site of the new rail shipping facility. On Dec. 15 the corporation applied to the state Transportation Commission to obtain the initial piece of the $26 million allocated by the state for the project.
Now the corporation will conduct appraisals along with environmental and archeological studies on the area. It could be 18 months before all of the preliminary work is complete.
SALES TAX SPARKS OUTCRY
An effort by Ontario officials to impose a 1 percent sales tax ran up against opposition from a group of residents and business leaders.
WHY IT RANKS: Ontario is the largest city in the county and is also a shopping hub for the area. Not only does it draw county residents but it also lures Idaho residents because they can avoid the Gem state’s sales tax. The city said it needed extra money to save city services.
UPDATE: Soon after the Ontario City Council signed off on the new levy, local residents banded together and collected the required number of petition signatures to place the tax on the May election ballot. The referendum essentially placed implementation of the tax in limbo. Until the May election, the city will not collect revenue from the levy. In November, city leaders directed City Manager Adam Brown to change the city charter to place a cap on the 1 percent sales tax.
MUSHROOM PLANT COMING TO VALE
A Canadian company was so impressed with Vale it decided to build a mushroom processing facility here. After a visit in February, Farmers Fresh Mushrooms bought 117 acres outside of Vale for its U.S. plant.
WHY IT RANKS: CEO Tan Truong is expecting the mushroom farm to be in operation by the end of 2018, employing 200 people and producing 200,000 pounds of fresh mushrooms per week to retail markets throughout the western U.S.
UPDATE: Farmers Fresh has announced the engineers are working on plans for the Vale site and efforts to arrange financing continue.
A NOT SO SUNNY DAY
The solar eclipse was awesome. It turned night into day and wowed people across the county but the expected influx of spectators for the didn’t happen. The solar eclipse rolled over the area Aug. 21 as it passed from the Pacific to the Atlantic seaboard.
WHY IT RANKS: The last time a total eclipse was visible from the mainland U.S. was February 1979. The August event reached totality across 14 states. The event was widely expected to flood the local area with thousands of visitors but that did not happen.
UPDATE: Local emergency management officials and police planned for a large contingent of spectators to crowd roadways and tax local services. The extensive planning by local agencies proved to be valuable for coordination in case of a major emergency in the future.
COMMUNITY COLLEGE STRUGGLES
The year proved to be difficult for Treasure Valley Community College. The college had to cut $1.2 million from the budget due to enrollment falling 11 percent. The largest chunk of the cuts came in the area of instruction with $654,000 being eliminated. Financial aid to students was cut $58,000. From 2010 to 2016, enrollment declined from 3,627 to 2,477.
WHY IT RANKS: The college is a major employer in the area, generating dollars back into the community and is the lone higher education location for local students.
UPDATE: The year ended with more bad news as student enrollment dropped an additional 20 percent. The college is currently in the process of shaving $500,000 off the budget while still in negotiations with the faculty union on a new labor contract.
FARMERS GRAIN GOES DARK
In August, the Nyssa based grain broker Farmers Grain declared bankruptcy and closed its doors. The company originally sought protection in bankruptcy to manage it debts and continue operation. But with liabilities reaching $23.7 million, lenders sought a liquidation instead. The founder, Galen Jantz, faced litigation from borrowers seeking an additional $4.5 million in loans. The collapse of the $30 million facility left many local farmers unpaid and waiting for a court solution.
WHY IT RANKS: Local producers suffered losses in the millions of dollars. In addition, storage for crops already planted became a problem as the silos sat empty during the bankruptcy hearings.
UPDATE: In November, an Idaho rancher, John Hepton, put in the winning bid for the land and buildings associated with Farmers Grain. Other items at the business were auctioned off under court order. In December, personal assets of Jantz were auctioned off at the family’s home outside of Vale. The home and 200 acres is currently for sale with an asking price of $2.6 million.
Jantz and his family currently live in Wisconsin. Local producers await the ruling of the US Bankruptcy Court to determine what will be recouped.
NEW VALE SCHOOL COSTS SOAR
After voters approved a $8 million bond to build a new middle school in Vale, rising construction costs coupled with planning problems arose. Costs to build the new school are estimated at $11.6 million with only $10 million budgeted. In late November, the construction company hired to complete the structure, ESI Construction, was fired in a difference with school officials about how to contain the costs.
WHY IT RANKS: Since the approval of the bond, public outcry has arisen over the placement of the new school behind the existing high school rather than at the site of the existing middle school. Voters have also been upset over the proposed cost overruns and lack of progress.
UPDATE: In December, the Vale School Board was informed the school is back on track with a site plan approved by the city. Current plans call for the school to open in April 2019.
NYSSA SCHOOLS STRUGGLE
The Nyssa School District handed outgoing high school principal Shawn Jensen a check for $50,000 after Jensen resigned following allegations of sexual harassment. Jensen had been on paid administrative leave following allegations he verbally and physically harassed a female staff member. An investigation confirmed the allegations, a school report said. Jensen was replaced by Ryan Swearingen, who quickly announced his resignation effective in June. Swearingen was briefly hired by the Ontario School District before taking a position at Eagle Point High School prior to the school year starting.
WHY IT RANKS: Nyssa High School saw a revolving door of administrators during the year.
UPDATE: A new principal, Malcom McRae, is in place at the high school with positive feedback from students, community leaders and district administrators.