Business & economy, Commentary

EDITORIAL: Tap state, not local budgets to rescue reload project

Taxpayers deserve straight answers before local officials decide to hand out $3 million or more to the Treasure Valley Reload Center. And no checks should be written until state legislators give up on the state putting in the last money needed.

Project managers want to reach into local pockets for millions more on top of $30 million or so they already have. They want $2 million from the Malheur County Court. And they want $1.5 million from what’s referred to as the Eastern Oregon Border Board, which is focused on Malheur County’s economy. 

The reload center has long been pitched as an economic boost for the entire community. County commissioners and directors on the border board should question how that is. Questions to be asked, hopefully in public sessions:

• How many new jobs will the onion industry – growers, packers, shippers – create in return for the public’s $38 million? That’s beside the handful of jobs when the reload center is operating.

• In a similar vein, will the onion crop be expanded to serve these new markets that rail is supposed to reach? Or are we investing millions to ship the same bags of onions but just to different addresses?

• Will the onion industry help fill the financial gap? Project managers years ago estimated onion businesses, half of them in Idaho, would save about $2 million a year with Nyssa in place. Devoting one year’s savings to the reload center would match dollar for dollar what the industry wants the county to pony up.

• What does the average Malheur County taxpayer get out of this deal? Don’t accept “fewer trucks on the road.” That’s unproven and likely is a fallacy.

The county commissioners in particular need to show the same diligence in questioning this ask as they have with other local entities in recent months.

Remember how a handful of aging retirees in Brogan asked the commissioners for a few bucks to buy gas for lawn mowing and to keep an outhouse clean? They had to produce receipts, they had to account for gallons of gas bought and even then, the commissioners gave them a pittance despite the grilling.

And then the only nursing home in the entire county came asking for help. Pioneer Place is essential for health care. It is a key employer in Vale. And the county had the money needed to cover Pioneer’s Covid-related costs. Instead, commissioners demanded to see detailed payroll records. They had Pioneer Place executives returning time after time.  And then, they parsed out only a portion of the money sought.

You’ve not seen that kind of attention to the Treasure Valley Reload Center. Commissioners this summer agreed to dip deeper into the county treasury so Greg Smith’s company could get paid $9,000 a month instead of $6,000. For the same work. Commissioners gave a pay raise with no conditions. To this day, there is no contract spelling out what Smith is supposed to do for his money.

A request for $2 million surely deserves the kind of probing questioning focused on the rental fee on a portable toilet in a public park.

And as local officials consider such a pricey Christmas gift, they should ask one more essential question: Why doesn’t the Oregon Legislature put up the $8 million or so needed to finish this?

Oregon government is flush with money. Starting with $26 million five years ago, legislators decreed this a “must do” state project. They backed that up recently by handing over another $3 million. Voting to make the special award, legislators lined up to show their support for the project, for rural Oregon. They have the money, thanks to surging tax collections, to easily finish the Treasure Valley Reload Center.

Our local legislators should orchestrate one final push to finance Nyssa. State Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, proved an effective salesman in pitching the $3 million. State Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, was in on that ask too. And Greg Smith as a Republican state representative is the dean of the Oregon House. He’s used that power before for this project and he can do it again. Smith knows how to blend his duties – he used his legislative power once to get $7 million for one of his other clients, the Columbia Development Authority.

These three should recruit to the cause the legislators on the state Emergency Board who in September voted for the $3 million. That included two powerful Democrats who will be running the 2023 session – House Speaker Dan Rayfield and state Sen. Rob Wagner, destined to become Senate president.

There’s time to do so – the reload center won’t ship onions until next fall at the earliest. Project leaders repeatedly tell us the project is nearly finished anyhow.

Such a state grant avoids the need to take a big bite out of local budgets to cover the Nyssa overruns. That money is needed for urgent local needs that should be first in line ahead of more rails or a warehouse, such has feeding hungry people, caring for abused children, or providing desperately needed mental health care.

Our legislators and their allies would serve the community well by rounding up one last state appropriation. That’s the best course instead of digging into money that is much needed for Malheur County’s unmet humanitarian and community needs. – LZ

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