Top 10 stories for 2018 in Malheur County

Teachers their supporters protested outside the Treasure Valley Community College in March after the college’s decision to fire six instructors. (The Enterprise/File photo)

1. Marijuana comes to Ontario

In November Ontario voters approved 1,923 to 1,460 a measure to lift a ban on retail marijuana sales. 

The vote put the cap on a long saga involving legalized retail sales of marijuana in Ontario that began in 2014 when voters statewide approved a measure legalizing marijuana and opening the door for dispensaries. 

Voters in Malheur County, however, opposed the measure by nearly 70 percent. In Ontario, the vote was 1,588-911 against marijuana sales. A year after the state vote, the Ontario council voted to ban dispensaries. 

Earlier this year a locally-organized petition drive collected enough signatures to place a measure on the November ballot that would allow state-licensed medical and recreational marijuana retailers, producers and processors and wholesalers in Ontario.

The issue produced sharp divisions – and debate – between opponents and proponents. It also attracted a large sum of out-of-state money. One supporter of the measure – Spokane marijuana merchant Tate Kapple – poured $130,000 into the repeal effort. 

The main opposition group – a political action committee called No Pot Ontario – raised more than $11,000 from 22 local donors. 

Voter approval kicked off a scramble by many to seek applications and stake out retail sites in Ontario. 

Those who seek to open a marijuana dispensary in Ontario will have to pay nearly $14,000 in state and city fees.

UPDATE: The city created new zoning rules for potential marijuana dispensaries that included a 1,000-foot buffer zone around each store. Now, there are 16 possible sites for marijuana dispensaries in Ontario if pot merchants meet all of the development requirements. 

2. Nyssa gets shipping plant 

The $26-million-dollar rail reload facility north of Nyssa gained steam. 

The facility is viewed as a major economic game changer where farm products would be trucked into the rail reload facility and loaded onto trains for fast shipment across the country. 

Early plans for the center showed it would employ up to 125 people. During the early part of the year, officials identified a site north of Ontario and began work on a pre-feasibility study. The feasibility study – required by the state – was released in September and showed that, at least initially, the facility will employ fewer than 125 people. 

UPDATE: The deal expected with the state by Jan. 1 didn’t happen, and getting $23 million in additional state money still waits for state officials to approve the Nyssa project. That isn’t expected until March, but project advocates say they are confident construction will start – and early.

3. Salem OKs border panel

Gov. Kate Brown in January announced seven appointees to the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Board. The board, established in legislation sponsored in 2017 by then-state Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, is designed to recommend changes to state law and regulations that would allow Malheur County to compete more with Idaho. 

During the year, the border board held monthly meetings to gather feedback from residents and officials regarding the important economic issues for the border area. 

UPDATE: The board is asking the Oregon Legislature for changes in five areas, ranging from licensing for trades to rural zoning.

4. Sales tax stirs hot debate

Ontario politics were roiled by a referral to city voters of a city-planned 1 percent sales tax. Petitioners gathered enough signatures to force a public vote the tax that the Ontario City Council had decided to impose on its own.

The spring campaign became one of the hottest political fights in Ontario in years. Both sides were bellicose. In one incident, a supporter of the tax walked into a local business and ripped down an anti-tax sign. 

UPDATE: Voters in May rejected the sales tax 1,581 to 825. City officials, however, used budget moves to avoid most of the cuts they had warned would happen.

5. Fire hits Vale

Fire destroyed Dentinger Feed & Seed granary in downtown Vale on July 28. Black smoke could be seen for miles as fire departments from across the valley rushed to battle the fire that destroyed the historic structure.

Livestock feed for farmers, along with processed grains – such as barley, corn, oats and wheat – were destroyed by the blaze.

Investigators later determined the fire was an accident.

UPDATE: Matt Dentinger said last month that the firm is in the early stage of rebuilding the granary. He said Dentinger Feed & Seed expects to break ground on a new facility in either March or April. 

6. Montwheeler in, out of state hospital

The criminal case of Anthony Montwheeler, accused of killing his ex-wife and a local man, took a series of twists and turns through the year, ending with a conclusion in December he is ready to face prosecution for aggravated murder, assault and kidnapping.

Prosecutors maintained in an indictment that in January 2017, Montwheeler kidnapped Annita Harmon, one of his ex-wives, and stabbed her to death. A clerk who watched the attack called police. Police pursued Montwheeler’s pickup truck down Oregon Highway 201 where, authorities say, he swerved into oncoming traffic and collided head-on with an SUV, killing Vale resident David Bates and seriously injuring his wife, Jessica.

In September, an Oregon judge ruled that Montwheeler, 50, was not competent to stand trial. He was ordered back to the Oregon State Hospital for treatment of depression that developed because of the charges against him.

UPDATE: Late last month, a state psychiatrist concluded Montwheeler was fit to stand trial in Malheur County. His trial is scheduled for this fall.

7. Local college struggles

Treasure Valley Community College entered into 2018 haunted by a series of challenges, including declining enrollment, labor trouble and a shrinking budget. The college terminated six instructors, hiked tuition to meet a $500,000 budget shortfall and pledged to reverse the trend in falling enrollment.

UPDATE: In December state statistics showed full-time student enrollment at TVCC continued to slump. In October, state enrollment data revealed the number of full-time students at the community college was at the lowest level since 2012.

8. Ontario voters save youth rec

Ontario will get a new recreation district after voters approved creation of the new government in November.

Budget woes forced Ontario city officials to slash funding to its recreation department and Ontario resident Mary Jo Evers kicked off a campaign last spring to create a new one. The district provided a variety of sports – soccer, baseball, flag football – to area youth.  

The proposed boundaries would be the same as that of the Ontario School District. The rate for the district is 55 cents per $1,000 of assessed value beginning this year. 

UPDATE: The new recreation board was sworn in in December and Evers said the district would be able to fund itself – through a grant – after June 30. Because of a funding gap, the city agreed to pay for the district from Jan. 1 to June 30, 2019. 

Tax revenues for the district will not begin to roll in until October.

9. Cemetery hit by vandals

In May, a vandal or vandals descended on Nyssa’s Hilltop Memorial Cemetery and destroyed 39 headstones and memorials. The binge of vandalism made headlines in Boise and across the region.

Ray Rau, Nyssa police chief, said he suspected a sledgehammer was used to destroy the memorial markers. Rau estimated the damage to be at least $20,000.

UPDATE: The Malheur County Sheriff’s Office spent most of the rest of the year investigating the incident. Despite some early leads, no arrests were made and the case remains unsolved.

10. Vale school in works

The traditional ceremony with hard hats and shovels marked the start of construction in May of the new Vale Middle School, next to the high school. The new school will include eight classrooms and a state-of-the-art gymnasium. Construction is scheduled to be finished in May with students attending classes for the first time in the new building in fall 2019.

UPDATE: A minor glitch hit the project when the Vale School District and city of Vale got into a dispute about a water line serving the new school. The city wasn’t happy with how the installation was done. The two sides have yet to settle the matter.