Business & economy

Findley uncertain of seeking more state money for rail project while Owens stays silent

VALE – The Malheur County Court signaled recently it is going all in on the Treasure Valley Reload Center, but officials are still scrambling to find cash for the beleaguered project and indicated late last year they plan to seek more money from the Oregon Legislature.
How much officials will seek from the Legislature and when remains a mystery but the apparent need for more money for the project continues to linger – and grow.
In October, project managers told the directors of the Malheur County Development Corp., the public company managing the project, that going back to the Oregon Legislature for another bailout was likely.
Behind schedule and over budget by at least $7 million, the rail reload project remains stalled as work on a terminal building, rail spurs and road upgrades remain to be completed. The project is scheduled to be finished by mid-May with the facility shipping onions by the fall.
In December, the Malheur County Court agreed to hand over $2 million to help the stalled project.
The last publicly-released document showing the project’s total budget was dated Oct. 24, showing a deep shortfall. Two months later, project officials said they had no updated budget and project leaders last week said they would need nearly three weeks to search files to see if they have any more recent budget.
“If records are found, they will be provided no later than Wednesday, February 1st,” said an email to the Enterprise from Greg Smith, project manager.
The majority of the funding for the project comes from a $26 million outlay approved by the Oregon Legislature in 2017, and two $3 million special appropriations, one in 2021 and a second one September.
The two legislators who represent Malheur County– state Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, and state Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale – are tight-lipped about whether they will seek more money for the project during the 2023 session.
The two were behind the $3 million request that legislators approved on an emergency basis in September.
The Enterprise sought comment from Owens via email and text last week about whether he would help again. He didn’t respond.
Findley was noncommittal. He served on the public company board until last fall.
“I have not made a decision on the issue,” Findley said in an email.
Findley was key to securing $3 million from the Legislative Emergency Board, which makes grants when the Oregon Legislature is not in session. The $3 million he got for the Nyssa project comes from the state’s general fund, which is stocked mainly from state income taxes.
At that time, Findley assured legislators that a $3 million outlay would finish the work on the project and get the center open. He also told the board that reports of cost overruns on the project were not true.
Records of the Malheur County Development Corp. contradicted Findley’s statements to fellow legislators.
Brad Baird, president of Anderson Perry & Associates of La Grande – the company overseeing construction of the rail center – said in an August report to the company board that even with the $3 million from legislators, more money will be needed to equip the main terminal building.
Findley later denied he supplied misleading information to legislators and stood by his remarks. However, the Enterprise established the budget numbers he discounted had, in fact, been in the senator’s files for a month before he addressed his colleagues on the Emergency Board.
In October, rail project managers presented a new analysis that showed more than $8 million in new funding was needed to complete the project, a boost of about $2 million since Findley made his sales pitch to the E-Board.
Findley said his statements to legislators were based on “private conversations” with Baird and members of the development company board. He could not explain why they would tell him in private that all they needed was $3 million even after consistently reviewing budget reports that showed the total cost was far higher.
Baird later told the Enterprise by email that Findley’s assertion the center would be operational with just the $3 million was the senator’s view.
A legislative analysis last year also advised legislators against approving the $3 million for the center because it was unclear the center would open as planned. Findley dismissed that concern to the Emergency Board.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

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