Malheur County is getting an unexpected $12 million gift and the entire community should decide how it should be spent.
The money comes in two $6 million payments but will be all in hand by next year. It comes to county government via federal legislation.
No one in the county asked for it. No one in the county apparently knew it was coming. But the Malheur County Court ultimately decides where the money goes.
Judge Dan Joyce and Commissioners Don Hodge and Ron Jacobs should set the county on a path to involve citizens. Though the money comes to the county, this is taxpayer money. Taxpayers ought to be asked what they want done with it.
A couple of factors to keep in mind. One is that the county could say “No thanks” and leave the money in the federal bank account. Malheur County is a conservative community interested in limited government spending. The county court could be true to that nature and decline the money. That doesn’t come with any penalty – the county wasn’t planning to have the money anyway.
But if the county opts to keep it, the second factor to bear in mind is that this is one-time money. The money generally shouldn’t pay for salaries or other on-going costs. Such costs would keep on going once the $12 million runs out.
So, what to do with this money? Let’s aim for impact. Let’s be bold. And let’s be smart, linking up this funding with other money available to really make good things happen in Malheur County.
Two large needs come to mind.
One is homelessness. Every survey of Oregon voters shows that to be the top concern. That’s clearly a concern here, particularly in Ontario. Let’s figure out what, say, $2 million would do to help.
Another is affordable housing. Let’s face it. Malheur County will continue to struggle attracting a work force if employees don’t have a place to live. This issue is on the lips of every government and business leader in the county. How could this money be used to the greatest effect?
And then perhaps make some of the money available for grants to nonprofits. So many groups are doing so much good work. But they often are impaired by tight funding. What about this?
Set up four grants of $25,000. Open a competition to any nonprofit with a budget of $500,000 or less. A selection committee would recommend awards to those with the most compelling plan for using the money.
Then set up four grants of $250,000 to nonprofits with budgets of over $500,000. Again, a competition to lure out strong thinking, big impact and something to make life better in Malheur County.
To start, the Malheur County Court should work with other groups to convene a Town Hall. Invite people from all parts of the county – arrange for Zoom participation for those far-flung places such Arock and Jordan Valley. Let’s call it a brainstorming session to address two questions: What could the money be used for and what system should be set up to decide those uses?
The county court could tap its economic development fund to retain someone to organize this, perhaps drawing on the regional border board or the Ontario Area Chamber of Commerce for help.
This is an extraordinary opportunity for Malheur County. This money should fuel ambition and dreams. It should not just disappear into government coffers to do more of the same, such as paving roads. There are other means to tackle such work.
No, this is a rare opportunity for the entire community to come together, to think big and to leave a lasting impact on Malheur County. This sort of chance won’t come along again anytime soon. Let’s make the most of it. – LZ
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