Editorial: Malheur commissioners miss opportunity to boost economic recovery

(The Enterprise/Rachel Parsons)

The Malheur County Court needs to explain why it is sitting idle as other government agencies work to restore the local economy. The three county commissioners weeks ago should have been asking: How can we help? Instead, they seem to be instead asking: Why should we help?

The global pandemic has damaged the Malheur County economy, no question. And uncertainty remains for the months and weeks ahead. Economists say it will be a year or more before the U.S. economy pulls even again. Meantime, the number of people without jobs remains high. Local businesses are fighting every day to stay alive. And warnings are clear that well-paying government jobs are next to disappear.

A consortium of local interests stepped up in April to do something about it. The group decided bringing on an economic recovery coordinator made sense. The coordinator’s key task would be to put the community in line for a share of millions in recovery dollars expected to flow from state and federal governments. The community needed someone with expertise to go after that money, bring it home, and help prop up our economy.

Who was involved? The city of Ontario, TVCC’s Small Business Development Center, Poverty to Prosperity, and the Snake River Economic Development Association pitched in to help. They asked Malheur County to join in by committing $40,000. They were rejected.

County Judge Dan Joyce and Commissioners Larry Wilson and Don Hodge had reasons for keeping their hands in their pockets.

One seemed reasonable. They didn’t want to fork over the $40,000 unless the consortium provided “milestones” – what the recovery coordinator would accomplish. That made sense and the consortium obliged. But the county commissioners’ apparent interest in “deliverables” instead seems a way to avoid helping.

Consider how the commissioners address a comparable circumstance. For years, the county commissioners have renewed contracts with Greg Smith’s company for economic development work. The total, approved for another year last week, is $180,000 a year. Smith’s oldest contract requires certain tasks get done. Smith’s company, for instance, is supposed to “visit existing businesses, conduct interviews and participate in business retention and expansion efforts.” The Smith firm also is to “develop a distinctive, competitive and effective marketing strategy to recruit new businesses to Malheur County.”

Such “milestones” would seem easy to assess. Joyce, Wilson and Hodge each were asked how they measured whether those milestones had been accomplished. Hodge said he was ill and couldn’t answer. Wilson said he would answer but didn’t. Joyce did respond, saying he’s satisfied the county is getting its money’s worth from Smith though he had no record to back that up.

And their hesitation to spend $40,000 to help the local economy stands in contrast to their earlier real estate dealings. Using county money, the commissioners bought bare farm land by paying $1 million more than it was worth. It’s puzzling how a million bucks isn’t anything to worry over but $40,000 to restore Malheur County’s economy is.

Their stalling on the economic recovery work seems even more striking in the face of what the county court did with its own economic development budget. They voted to increase their spending by 36% in the coming year – an extra $140,000. And as they did last year, they still budgeted $40,000 for “promotions” next year and another $40,000 for “travel.”

But they also decided to pad their budget with an extra $25,000 for “public/media relations.” This is a new cost. This is a priority over economic recovery?

Wilson and Hodge didn’t respond to emails requesting an explanation. Joyce said Monday that the county needed public relations help in part because of the unflattering coverage of the county by the Enterprise. He said county department heads asked for the PR help.

Clearly, the commissioners’ reluctance to aid local economic recovery is rooted in something other than being careful with public money. Perhaps Wilson revealed the explanation when he asked recently why the consortium hadn’t invited any of the commissioners to serve on its team. (Never mind that Smith was invited and skipped most of the meetings).

Wilson’s remark suggests the county commissioners felt slighted. If so, they ought to be asking their economic development director why that was.

When thousands of county residents and their employers are suffering, the commissioners ought to take every possible step to help. Maybe it won’t work, but taking no action certainly guarantees no results. The county should come off the bench, taking $40,000 the commissioners want to spend on “promotions,” add in $25,000 they want to spend on “media relations” and give the community better chances for recovery.                – LZ