EDITORIAL: Rapid and major changes needed to get Nyssa rail project back on track

Grant Kitamura, left, and Corey Maag listen to a briefing on the Treasure Valley Reload Center on April 12. Kitamura is president of Malheur County Development Corp. and Maag is a director. (ANGIE SILLONIS/Special to the Enterprise)

The time is here for a rescue mission to save the Treasure Valley Reload Center. The community has been failed by people it trusted to build this. That must change.

This project is behind schedule and could be short by $9.8 million, threatening construction of the reload building itself. No building, no customers.

County officials and the community face key questions:

• How much money is needed?

The money hole has been getting deeper by the day recently. Circumstances shift. Numbers change. Certainty is needed.

• What elements of the project should be canceled?

One piece of the project apparently isn’t really necessary but costs millions. Consider what is needed to get this rail center running and stop everything else.

• Who’s going to be in charge?

Responsibility is muddled – or shirked. Greg Smith, project manager, has proven ineffective as he bungles this project time after time. The directors of the public company building the reload center need to snap to attention, resign, or be fired. The Malheur County Court needs to wake from its slumber and take charge.

Smith, the board of the Malheur County Development Corp., and the county court all have had a role in miring this project in mud and mismanagement.

Under Smith’s charge, the project is years behind schedule. He has missed deadline after deadline. He has his excuses. He takes none of the blame.

Despite his supposed financing background, Smith recently lost track of $3 million. He told the development company board he had that money for the project. Done deal, he indicated. But it wasn’t. He missed the memo that the deal wasn’t done, that there was no $3 million.

Last week, he presented one state program as a possible source for some of the $9.8 million. He was wrong. The development company can’t use that program and Smith should have known that.

He also claimed that any loan arranged to finance the project’s shortfall could be repaid by selling parts of the Treasure Valley Reload Center. What pieces? There is nothing to sell. Nine acres is unusable swampland. The rest of the 54 acres is needed for loading and moving rail cars.

Malheur County taxpayers should worry that no director on that public board caught that last goof. No one said, “Hey, Greg, you know, we can’t sell off pieces of the reload center.” They listened in silence.

That is an example of the passive performance of these directors ­– Grant Kitamura of Baker & Murakami Produce, Kay Riley of Snake River Produce, Jason Pearson of Eagle Eye Produce and Corey Maag of Jamieson Produce. Lynn Findley, a state senator who sits on the board, wasn’t there last week and has largely been MIA from his board duties.

At last week’s meeting, no director confronted Smith about his mistaken promise of that $3 million. You can bet if an employee in their businesses made such an error, they wouldn’t be just shrugging their shoulders.

And when Smith and Brad Baird, the lead engineer from Anderson Perry and Associates, blamed inflation for climbing costs, no director asked: Why didn’t you plan for inflation? The cost of concrete didn’t suddenly go up this month. Inflation has been on the march for a year. Ask anyone who bought a gallon of milk in recent months. In 21 board meetings dating to January 2021, the word “inflation” never appears in minutes.

And this board behaves as it if works for Smith, not the other way around. For instance, the original plans called for truck scales but they have disappeared. It seems Smith and his team made that choice without approval from the board. And a significant change impacting construction costs was made in early February. Smith didn’t tell his board about it that month or the month after. Only last week did he seek board approval for the change. No director questioned why they weren’t consulted before the change.

Worse, when the bad news was delivered last week, the directors largely just sat and listened. They didn’t delve into how the project got so far into trouble. They didn’t discuss where they would get millions. They didn’t consider whether to stop work and regroup. They just adjourned, apparently hoping that Smith would fix it all.

These onion executives leave the impression that getting lower shipping prices for their businesses is more important than husbanding public money with care.

Final responsibility for this project belongs to the Malheur County Court – Judge Dan Joyce and Commissioners Don Hodge and Ron Jacobs. They have a duty to Malheur County and its people to do more than observe as this project sinks deeper into trouble. They must stop behaving as bystanders at a wreck.

They have a chance to redeem themselves, and so does the development company board.

Where to from here?

• The development company board needs to discharge Greg Smith, asking that his county contract be terminated. Especially now, this project needs a full-time leader. The challenges are too big for a part-timer to resolve. The directors should elevate Brad Baird immediately to serve as the real project leader.

• The county court needs to immediately appoint two outside directors to the board. One seat has been vacant for months. Findley should create a second by resigning. He has not been faithful to his duty to this board because, understandably, his Senate duties continue to grow. There is no shame in him clearing the way for a more active director. The seats should be filled by those able to ask challenging questions – Riley Hill, Dirk DeBoer, Bill Johnson and Mike Walker come to mind as candidates.

• The county court needs to restore integrity to this project. The commissioners should spend $50,000 to $100,000 to hire an outside engineer. This outside authority on public works projects and finance would become the public’s protector. Another course would be to bring in state auditors. The public needs assurances this project isn’t crooked.

With those actions, odds improve that the Treasure Valley Reload Center can be finished in a reasonable time and at a sensible price and that Malheur County’s economy will get the lift it so desperately needs. – LZ

WHAT’S YOUR OPINION? Submit a letter to the editor, limited to 250 words, to [email protected]. Include your phone or email for verification purposes.