EDITORIAL: Hard choices, including new team, needed to get the reload center done

Malheur County taxpayers ought to rebel at the grab being made for their money by those behind the Treasure Valley Reload Center. This project needs to be put on hold, a new team needs to be brought in, and the Oregon Legislature should prepare to put in the money to finish the job.
There are three realities that Malheur County commissioners must confront.

First, there is no question this project needs to be completed with millions already spent. That means a smart solution has to be found.

Second, there is time to fix this. Onions won’t ship for a year. That gives the county and the state the opening to pause this project, get true information, and chart a sensible path to completion.

Third, the team in place now has to be jettisoned. With the exception of farmer Corey Maag, the entire board of the Malheur County Development Corp. should be fired. They’ve failed the taxpayers while eagerly working to serve their own interests. Nothing coming from Greg Smith, the project manager, can or should be trusted. And Brad Baird and his engineering firm have bumbled along, never accepting responsibility for this mess.

It’s easy to imagine the team creating the illusion of frugality, knowing at the last minute they could spring the cost on everybody late in the work. 

Consider last week’s revelations.

The community was told that suddenly Union Pacific Railroad is muscling the team, demanding a rail spur be put in that wasn’t anticipated. Baird guesses that will take an extra $2 million. But Baird, Smith and the rest of the team are mute about how this could be. Why would Union Pacific and RailPros, the project’s rail engineers, pull such a surprise?

There is reason to believe they didn’t. That fourth rail spur has been in the plans for five years. It’s part of the deal with Union Pacific. It’s part of the plans formulated by RailPros. And it’s required as a condition of the state funding. RailPros is blunt – that spur was never optional.

One other piece that suggests that Baird and Smith knew they would have to put in this spur. As construction unfolded, contractors filled in the wetlands where this supposedly postponed rail spur would go. The two men refuse to explain that, but it likely cost the project $1 million. Perhaps the reason is you’re doing the work nearby, so just add little to get ready for this spur. That doesn’t seem sensible for a project far over budget – and after Smith said in April the spur was being put off for three years.

Rather, we wonder whether there was a scheme here. One possibility is that the project team understood all along this rail spur has to be constructed now, not in three years. It’s easy to imagine the team creating the illusion of frugality, knowing at the last minute they could spring the cost on everybody late in the work. It’s easier to get money in a crisis than in moments of deliberation.

And then there is the shameless arrogance of this project team. County officials just learned they will soon get $6 million in unexpected federal funds – no strings attached. Smith wants to get first in line to grab a third of it before anyone else can make a case for a share.

On top of that, Smith wants to pressure the Eastern Oregon Border Board into coughing up another $1.5 million. He intends make the case by taking along political muscle in the form of state Sen. Lynn Findley and state Rep. Mark Owens. Their presence does serve one purpose – reminding this local board that its money comes from the Legislature.

So, here are our recommendations.

•The Malheur County Court should invite representatives of Union Pacific and RailPros to a public meeting soon to address this project and their requirements. Representatives from Americold should be at the table too, to give their account of being asked for money and whether they’ve been pressured to drop features that likely are needed for the reload center to succeed. This is needed immediately to restore credibility for this project.

*The county court should join with the state Transportation Department in a call for help from the state Audits Division. Auditors should be tasked to examine at least two claims ­­– that the fourth rail spur demand was a surprise and that “unforeseen” circumstances at the former farm added roughly $7 million to the costs.

*The county court and Transportation Department should freeze this project. They should bring in unbiased experts to assess what it will take to finish the reload center. That includes experts in financing, a skill utterly lacking in this project so far. The task is to put together a plan for what needs to be built, in what order and at what cost.

*With an agreeable plan, all of us in Malheur County should unite behind a single request to the Oregon Legislature in 2023 to put up the rest of the money, probably close to $10 million. The case should be built with care and with clear representation from all corners of the community – not just the privileged few who would profit from its construction. We need to present a unified voice in Salem. There is no other way. This poor county can’t keep dipping into its meager treasury for money, companies such as Americold should not be hustled into writing a check, and any other hare-brained scheme should be ignored.

These steps get the Treasure Valley Reload Center in operation in a transparent way that taxpayers can trust. Anything less pours public money into undeserving hands, continues to damage the county’s reputation, and leaves us all with a half-done embarrassment. – LZ