EDITORIAL: Time for outside audit of Malheur County’s economic development shop

Too many questions are building over operations of Malheur County’s economic development operation. A lot of money and the county’s economic future is at stake. The Malheur County Court needs to order a thorough outside audit.

Since 2013, the county has turned over its economic development efforts to Greg Smith through Gregory Smith and Company. That’s cost the county $108,000 a year. Now, it turns out, Smith holds down two other full-time jobs, manages economic development for three other counties, and has other duties.

County officials have put great stock in Smith’s talents to drive planning for Treasure Valley Reload Center, a rail center for Nyssa. They have been too content to let Smith spin his stories and accept his claims. County Judge Dan Joyce justified not even bother looking at Smith’s bills because he didn’t want to “micromanage.”

Perhaps if Joyce had been more attentive he would have better answers to why the state was told land costs for Nyssa would be $1.6 million when they are north of $3 million. Perhaps if Joyce were more attentive, he would be holding Smith accountable for wrongly telling the state a cargo deal had been signed when that never happened. And now, it appears, the state is warning it will pay only for land needed for the shipping center – not extra acreage for a speculative industrial park.

But what should really rankle taxpayers is the disclosure that not only is Smith working on another community’s rail project, he’s doing so for free. County officials said they didn’t know that when they recently decided not only to award Smith’s company an extra $72,000 for the year ahead but also set up a $50,000 kitty for the company to use for rail expenses.

What gives? Smith isn’t talking to the Enterprise and the county judge didn’t answer written questions. On its face, it looks like Malheur County got played. Our community is expected to dip into its modest treasury to satisfy Smith and Company while the Albany area gets services, once charged at $10,000 a month, at no cost. On a per capita basis, Malheur County is the poorest in the state. The Malheur County Court, when it comes to Smith, acts like we’re among the richest.

The county court’s hands-off approach to managing Smith means there has been no meaningful oversight or review of Smith’s actions in Malheur County. The county court should remedy that by tapping the budget one more time – to hire credible, skilled outside auditors. Among tasks that should be charged to these auditors:

–      What have Malheur County residents been getting for more than $100,000 a year? How does the service match what other communities get from economic development?

–      With the county already shelling out $108,000 to Smith and Company, what did the community gain when the county handed over another $72,000?

–      Now that we know Smith has been working for free elsewhere, the evidence that he used the Malheur County operation to cover some of his valley work make sense. Let’s find out how much time and resources paid for by Malheur County has been diverted to the Linn County project.

–      Examine in detail Smith’s trip to Los Angeles in 2018. The trip has an odor to it. Smith has said he went to a trade expo to hand out material. But expo rules didn’t allow him to do that. Did he not go to the event, or did he flout the rules to sneak material in? Sneaking wouldn’t exactly get a great image for Malheur County. And he stayed at a hotel far from the expo site. Was he really there for the expo or did county residents help fund a vacation trip for Smith? This goes to Smith’s credibility and honesty, and the county court should want assurances on both counts.

–      Examine the handling of the Treasure Valley Reload Center. Why did Smith change his accounts for what land was needed and what it would cost? When did he find out it would be up to Malheur County, not the railroad, to provide costly rail cars to make this project work? When did he learn the state would limit how much land could be zoned for this project? Malheur County officials so far have shown precious little interest in holding Smith accountable on such issues.

The taxpayers of Malheur County deserve to know all of this, and an independent audit – by those with no connection to the county — is the best way to proceed.

Three results are possible from an honest audit. One would be that Smith and his crew have performed admirably. One would be that Smith and his crew have stumbled and here are ways to get more value from his contracts. And one would be that Malheur County would be better off to go a new route with new talent. Those results might not all be to Greg Smith’s benefit, but this isn’t about him. This is about getting county taxpayers the most for their money, providing oversight that has been lax at best, and any of those three results would instill confidence in a county operation now on shaky legs. – LZ

Want to add your voice? What should the county do? Send an email to Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce, who is the county’s top official: [email protected].