Malheur County Court stalls decision on economic relief coordinator, judge doubts approval

Dan Joyce, Malheur County judge, said last week the county will probably not approve funds for a special position to help the area bounce back from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 virus. (The Enterprise/Joe Siess)

This story has been updated to reflect the move by the Malheur County Court Wednesday, May 20.

VALE – For the third week in a row the Malheur County Court last Wednesday put off deciding whether to support a new position to help the local economy recover.

An informal group calling itself the Malheur Recovery Team has been trying to get county commissioners to allocate $40,000 to support a temporary job that would help area businesses get back up and running.

The Malheur Recovery Team includes Ontario City Manager Adam Brown; Andrea Testi, director of the Treasure Valley Community College Small Business Development Center; Ontario City Councilor Michael Braden, Kit Kamo, executive director of the Snake River Economic Development Alliance; Dan Cummings, Ontario community development director; and John Breidenbach, chief executive officer of the Ontario Area Chamber of Commerce.

The stalled court decision “throws a wrench” in the recovery plan, said Brown.

“We can’t do everything without full funding,” said Brown.

Brown said the decision by the court to yet again defer a decision “is not helpful.”

Malheur County businesses that had been closed nearly two months last week were allowed to resume operations.

The coordinator position is part of a three-phase plan to tap into cash from federal and state sources to help local businesses hit hard by the COVID-19 epidemic.

In April, the Ontario City Council located $30,000 to the coordinator position and the local Poverty to Prosperity program promised to provide $15,000.

According to county budget documents, the county has more than $100,000 sitting unused in its economic development fund. County commissioners earlier this year dipped into the county’s reserve fund for nearly $1 million to buy bare farm land in Nyssa for future development. An appraisal later showed the commissioners paid $1 million more than the land was worth.

Commissioner Larry Wilson said the court delayed acting on the recovery job so it “had time to really look it over.”

The court last week again passed on addressing the plan because County Judge Dan Joyce didn’t attend the regular court meeting.

“Dan’s suggestion was we not take this up until we can all be here to discuss it,” said Wilson.

The court had the request on its agenda for the fourth time for its meeting this Wednesday. Wednesday the court elected to defer the decision again but left the door open to revisit the concept in the future.

The possibility the court will sign off on the proposal isn’t high, said Joyce. That’s because, he said, he has not seen a formal plan for the position and he is not comfortable allocating any money now because of possible budget cuts at the state level.

Gov. Kate Brown announced May 12 state agencies should begin to make plans to reduce budgets by 17% for the approaching fiscal year that starts July 1.

Whether state funds that trickle down to Malheur County – for such items as public health, veterans, and emergency management – will be impacted by a state budget squeeze is unknown but state lottery dollars are already short, said Joyce. He said he doesn’t want to take any chances.

 “We got to figure out where the money is going to come from first,” said Joyce.

The county already contracts for $180,000 a year for Greg Smith’s private company to operate the Malheur County Economic Development Department.

Joyce declined to answer written questions regarding county finances and the position. The questions included the status in the current county’s economic development budget of $75,000 for technical assistance, $40,000 for promotions and $40,000 for travel.

Another sticking point for the court to the position was whether performance measures are in place to evaluate the work of any new coordinator.

Joyce was asked whether the court had performance measures in place for Smith, but he declined to answer.

“In all fairness these questions should be vetted by those impacted,” Joyce said in an email to the Enterprise.

The recovery team, Adam Brown said, will move ahead with other options.

“Right now, we are trying to see what we can do with the $45,000 we do have,” he said.

Brown said the recovery team would consider a plan to recruit someone “who is good at working at the federal level or a consultant at the state level.”

He said, however, the team will probably not be able to hire more than one consultant with the $45,000 it has on hand.

“There is no way we will be able to get both of those at that price,” said Brown.

The court first considered the proposal April 29 but balked because the commissioners wanted detailed information about what the effort would produce. The questions from the court – outlined in an April 22 memo crafted by Smith – sought information on what the coordinator would accomplish and how the performance would be measured. They also wanted to know whether paying for the work could be tied to achieving specific goals.

The county’s current contract with Smith’s company has no such goals.

Brown responded to those questions in a letter just before the court’s May 6 meeting.

 “We are not requesting the Malheur County Court take budget away from any other county function to fund this request,” he wrote.

The funding for the position, Brown wrote, won’t be allocated to community partners but is “to pay for services of lobbyists and grant writers who can bring back funding to Ontario and Malheur County.”

Brown wrote the economic recovery team wants the county to “directly supervise this position. Malheur County is the primary vehicle through which the state is working to reopen the economy.”

Also, Brown wrote, the city of Ontario, Poverty to Prosperity and “other funders or stakeholders” would form an advisory group to help oversee the slot.

“If the county would prefer not to be in the supervisory role, I believe the city would be fine with coordinating the effort ourselves,” Brown wrote.

“We believe that infrastructure funding will be part of future stimulus packages and we want to be positioned to acquire those funds,” he wrote.

According to Brown, the success of the position will be measured by how much financial aid can be attracted to the county.

“It is dollars and cents, bringing back money from the stimulus fund for projects we have waiting,” said Brown.

Have a news tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected].


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