County officials are spending thousands of dollars of your money to convince the state to lend even more money for them to spend. So far, their sales job has left out a key constituent: Malheur County taxpayers. Those in the community who may be on the hook to repay millions deserve as much attention as check-writing bureaucrats in Salem.

The Malheur County Court and its economic development arm are asking the state to borrow at least $2.1. million. County Judge Dan Joyce and Greg Smith, the county economic development director, say the county needs to go into hock so it can buy up private industrial land. This is bare ground, empty of anything but weeds and hope.

This is not the land needed for the Treasure Valley Reload Center, the onion-shipping depot planned for Nyssa. The state is just giving Malheur County $600,000 or so to buy that land.

No, what the plans involve is buying an extra 146 acres next to the depot and another 78 acres just down the road in Nyssa.

This is all in the name of industrial development and recruiting employers to Malheur County. Taxpayers should be wary of “build it and they will come” plans. Communities across Oregon are staring at empty streets in industrial parks that never took hold as promised.

If Malheur County can bring in factories and producers, terrific. But the community needs some answers to know whether to cheer on the county – or insist it slow down. So far, Joyce and Smith have revealed little to taxpayers, leaving significant questions.

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One question is demand. Smith led an effort five years ago that identified industrial land in Malheur County. Recently, county officials said the county has a stock of several hundred acres of such land. Joyce was asked Nov. 13 for the record of prior successful efforts by the county to develop industrial land. He hasn’t answered. The county needs to explain how government executives would be better at developing industrial ground than private owners who have an incentive to profit.

The second question is support. Buying bare ground and putting up a “for sale” sign doesn’t bring industry running. Consider one of the pieces the county wants to buy – the 78 acres owned by Nyssa Industries. The company, with a private list of shareholders that includes a county commissioner, has owned the ground for a quarter of a century – and it’s still empty. According to county records, the land needs millions of dollars in sewer, water and other services to make it useful. Joyce and Smith so far haven’t explained those costs or where they would get that money. That should make county taxpayers nervous. Is more borrowing ahead in their name?

The third question is the debt. The county is offering its credit to back borrowing from the state. The county’s credit rests on its ability to pay any bill necessary by tapping money collected through property taxes. Joyce and Smith haven’t explained the financing and or any risk that, in a worst case, money from the county treasury might have to be diverted from other needs such as public health and safety.

The county is suggesting that the state money could be repaid by selling off the industrial land. That’s land speculation. Perhaps the county has buyers ready to sign up to buy. If so, Joyce and Smith should say so and share with the public how the deal pencils out for taxpayers.

Malheur County clearly can use higher paying jobs. And industry can be the source of such jobs. Joyce and Smith may have found solutions to the challenge of recruiting industry that have eluded most communities in Oregon. They may have industrial customers ready to buy land and move in, bringing millions in fresh investment.

If so, they haven’t given the community any indication that’s the case. It’s time county officials explain more openly their justification for borrowing millions to put the county and its taxpayers in the land development business. - LZ

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