County elected leaders balk at support for new economic recovery position

Dan Joyce, Malheur County judge, said funding for a temporary economic recovery position will remain uncertain until financial cuts at the state level can be evaulated. (The Enterprise/File).

VALE – The Malheur County Court declined to make a final decision on a new position to help the local economy recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

During its meeting May 20, the court left the issue in limbo, but affirmed it might be willing to provide money for the position in the future.

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

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

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 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 Malheur County Economic Development Director Greg 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.

The court put off a decision at its May 12 session because County Judge Dan Joyce wasn’t available.

Joyce said the chances the court would approve money for the position were slim because of uncertainty regarding the state budget.

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. Last week state economists warned Oregon will lose $10.5 billion in revenue during the next five years because of COVID-19.

The report by the state Office of Economic Analysis showed the state is in a recession and “that downturn will be severe. Recovery will take years.”

Whether state funds that trickle down to Malheur County – for needs such 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 did not want to take any chances.

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

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

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.

Last week, Commissioner Larry Wilson told Brown he “kind of wondered why you guys are going to make this decision and you want $40,000 from us, how come no one from the court was asked to be on this (Malheur Recovery Team) committee?”

“I felt like you kind of tell us what you want and go along and there wasn’t much cooperation between us,” Wilson told Brown.

Brown noted the Recovery Team began work more than a month ago.

“We invited Greg (Smith) to every meeting, most of which he has not attended. I know the mayor has been in constant talks with you and other commissioners,” said Brown.

Commissioner Don Hodge said he had not been contacted by city officials about the matter but Wilson said he talked over the proposed position with Ontario Mayor Riley Hill.

Wilson also said he was troubled that the proposal for the new position appeared focused on Ontario and not the whole county.

However, Brown said that was not the intent.

Wilson said he is not against “helping somebody” but without members of the court on the recovery team the request for funds appeared to be a “unilateral decision.”

Hodge said if federal relief money filters down from the state to the county level, those funds could be used to help with the position. Her said he prefers to talk with Brown again about the position before he decides.

“In my mind, my vote would be the same as Ontario, $30,000, if we decide, that would be what I would discuss,” said Hodge.

Wilson said he understood it looked like the court was stalling but “as of today I would not be in favor of supporting the $40,000 request.”

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