Greg Smith, Malheur County’s economic development director, speaking to county commissioners at the Malheur County Courthouse on Wednesday, Dec. 11. Behind him is his assistant, John Braese. (The Enterprise/Joe Siess)
The taxpayers of Malheur County had better be on guard. County officials are getting more ambitious by the week in their plans to spend public money, and they are doing some of their scheming in private meetings and behind closed doors. Millions of dollars are at issue, and heightened vigilance is the best insurance the public has.
When plans for the Treasure Valley Reload Center were unveiled two years ago, the county led the public to believe: This won’t hardly cost you a dime. That’s because, with the work of then-state Rep. Cliff Bentz, the state put $26 million aside for Malheur County. That sum, the community was told, would cover virtually every cost of opening a rail shipping center, putting Nyssa on the map of industrial sites.
Now, we are discovering that there is no such thing as a free industrial development. And the only reason the community is discovering any of this is because the Malheur Enterprise has documented the escalating costs. The newspaper didn’t get the key information from county officials at the courthouse, two blocks from the newspaper’s office. Instead, the real story of millions at risk was obtained from state officials 400 miles away in Salem. That alone is outrageous.
Here’s how County Judge Dan Joyce and his cohorts, Commissioners Larry Wilson and Don Hodge, have reached deeper and deeper into county coffers to fund their dream of a humming industrial complex. First, they gave Greg Smith’s company an extra $72,000 a year to manage rail efforts. Then, they set aside $50,000 in county money to pay legal bills and other costs. Then, in October, the county considered how to drain $1 million from the county’s rainy day fund to cover a real estate deal it otherwise couldn’t afford.
But that was just the warmup. Now, state records show, the county is proposing coming up with another $14 million in county money to make the industrial development happen. The money is needed to turn raw farmland into an industrial subdivision, complete with streets and utilities.
Last week, Joyce, Wilson and Hodge conducted a public session where Smith was to update the court and the public. Smith made a pretty pitch – suggesting that any money the county spent would come back when the industrial project paid off. Hodge suggested the county was just advancing money it would get back. “All that money will be rebated to the county,” Hodge told the public. He and Smith made it sound like there’s not a doubt on the planet that new companies will line up to build in Nyssa, never mind that 80 acres of that industrial land has been sitting there, growing nothing but weeds, for more than 20 years.
But here’s the stunner. As the commissioners sat there listening to Smith, they were aware of two key facts. First, the meeting was being broadcast to the public by the Enterprise. (Views of video now top 14,000). Second, they knew that two weeks earlier Joyce signed off an application to the state that disclosed the need for another $14 million. The application listed “Malheur County” as the “source of funds.”
Not one of the commissioners said a peep in that meeting to the community about that. Smith, slick as ever, noted that the land had no services – but never told the public that there was a $14 million bill that could be coming at taxpayers.
Far too much of this is being done out of the public eye. Joyce, Wilson, Hodge and Smith all have been asked repeatedly about these real estate deals and how sewer pipes and such would be paid for. They appear to dislike being questioned by the Enterprise about public business, so they ignore questions, chirp “no comment” or tell us to file public records requests (which Smith can then complain about) as their answer to what’s going on. That’s not offending to us. It’s offending to the 31,000 people who call Malheur County home and deserve the truth.
The county says it will hold a public hearing about moving $1 million out of its contingency fund. That’s not good enough. No one can ask questions at such a hearing, and the county can cherry pick which information it wants to disclose. But not one dime of that money should be appropriated and certainly nowhere near $14 million ought to be diverted without a public vote. The county has eroded the community’s trust. Joyce, Hodge and Wilson need to restore that trust and build support for industrial development by putting a bond measure before county voters to fund it all. That way, they can campaign, tell the public the full story, and find out if the community is as ambitious about speculative land deals as they are. The citizens of Malheur County should demand a say, and they should get that say by public vote. -LZ
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