Editorial: Malheur County’s $2 million gift to reload center ignores greater needs

Malheur County officials signaled the community what they think is the most pressing issue in the county. They chose steel over people. They did so with no public process and likely a lot of backdoor dealing.

Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce, Commissioner Ron Jacobs and departing Commissioner Don Hodge all said yes to giving $2 million in county money to the Treasure Valley Reload Center. They were apparently convinced this was an emergency. Never mind the county doesn’t yet have the $2 million they gave out.

Consider the other needs in the community crying out for funding.

Child poverty, for one. One out of four kids in Malheur County -– about 2,500 – lives with adults who make poverty-level wages or worse. These kids miss meals. They may not have decent clothing. They go without decent medical care. They miss school.

Homelessness, for another. More than 300 people brace for subfreezing temperatures in the county with no prospect of decent shelter. The community is desperately short of resources to get them under cover.

And fentanyl is causing alarming damage in Malheur County. This is emerging as a serious community health and law enforcement crisis.

Did the county commissioners rush in with help for any of those? Or others, such as mental health? No.

Apparently, buying a $2 million rail spur that won’t get used for nearly a year was more important.

The way the Malheur County Court decided was an abdication of effective leadership.

Twice, officials from Malheur County Development Corp. came calling for their $2 million. The county commissioners twice had an opportunity to vet the need.  Why was this a sudden emergency? They apparently swallowed the fable that the rail spur was thrust upon project leaders as a surprise. The commissioners didn’t press.

The commissioners also started spending money with no plan. They expect to get $12 million in federal money they can use just about any way they want – such as on impoverished children. But they haven’t considered, at least in public, the best ways to use that money.

They didn’t create priorities, or even assess the community needs. They didn’t set up a process for those in the community to ask – no application, no guidelines, no requirements. Nothing. 

Instead they allowed the rail project leaders to bull their way to the head of the line, hands out. They got a great Christmas gift. The rest of the community? The proverbial lump of coal.

What’s even more astonishing is that county commissioners sat mute while Greg Smith, the project leader, lectured them. He said he could get $1 million for the project – but only if county commissioners coughed up $2 million first.

Hodge pressed him for the source. Smith forgot who he was working for, and apparently came to the meeting representing one of his other paying clients, Morrow Development Corp. But he refused to tell county commissioners – who pay Smith’s $9,000 monthly bill – the source of the money. This isn’t some Mafia deal and Smith doesn’t have to follow omertà –the code of silence. This is Malheur County business. The commissioners and the public had a right to Smith’s information.

The county court should have pledged the money – but not written the check. Project leaders, after all, are still $6.5 million or so short of getting this done even with the county money. The project leaders in the past year have shown little ability to raise money unless they use political muscle in Salem. The commissioners set themselves up for more asks. How can they possibly say no in the future?

The Malheur County Court stumbled badly in gifting the $2 million. They should focus on the needy people of Malheur County, not the need of onion executives to enrich themselves. The first order of business in the new year should be to suspend the $2 million payment until project leaders come up with new money.

Meantime, the court needs to show allegiance to good governance by crafting clear and public steps for how anyone else can get a share of that $12 million. – LZ

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