Malheur County Judge, Dan Joyce. (The Enterprise/File)

The smartest comments to come from a recent public hearing in Vale were voices calling for a “time out” on Malheur County’s industrial development ambitions. That’s precisely what should happen.

Malheur County officials are pushing on two tracks. One is development of the state-funded Treasure Valley Reload Center. The second is industrial park development on at least two parcels. Officials at the state Transportation Department are on duty to be watchful over the rail shipping center. Local citizens can be comforted that the state agency won’t advance money to Malheur County if the project doesn’t pencil out or otherwise doesn’t turn out to be sensible.

Taxpayers have considerably more at risk on the industrial development. County officials have made only vague, and sometimes misleading, explanations. They suggest that hundreds of jobs would take root in Nyssa when companies snap up ground in a county-run industrial park. They have dodged legitimate citizen questions about where money would come from to build the park, what is the demand for industrial ground, and what is the payoff for taxpayers.

The Malheur County Court should hit “pause” on the industrial project. Then it should appoint a commission of respected citizens to review the project. This should be people who have no connection, no vested interest in the shipping center or the industrial park. This should include people who know how to trace money, understand development, and can ask strong questions.

Their work should be guided by an expert paid for by the county, picked from a list suggested by Business Oregon or some other entity. This director should be given access to any – any – document or information needed to inform the work.

Here’s what this blue ribbon panel could do for all of us.

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It could address what is the case for public investment in an industrial park. County officials keep saying there is “a lot of interest” in a Nyssa project. Interest is not a signed check. What’s the demand for what the county envisions?

What are experts saying about industrial development? What kind of companies are on the move? What kind of jobs do they have? What do they want out of an industrial site and why would the county’s be preferred over others?

What are the true costs of putting in an industrial park? County officials have wobbled all over the course on this. 

Once those costs are set, where’s the money coming from? County officials have ducked this question over and over. Instead, they focus on future paybacks by the state. Maybe that all works out, but where does a poor county in the meantime get the upfront money? County officials so far refuse to give a clear answer, and that should trouble every county taxpayer.

In the end, perhaps there is a great case for plunging ahead and pouring millions of public dollars into that ground in Nyssa. County officials ought to welcome an outside review. If it confirms their judgment and provides the community confidence to back them, that’s a good result. If the review finds the whole idea is blue sky and ought to be stopped in its tracks, now’s the time to learn that – not after streets to nowhere are put in.

The result would be a credible, honest assessment of this project. County officials have made such a review imperative because their credibility has eroded month by month on this.

Remember last year when Malheur County made a big deal that Union Pacific was buying more rail cars? The county pitched that to state officials. In fact, railroad officials already had warned the county it wasn’t supplying cars so badly needed by the community’s onion shippers.

Remember when Malheur County told the state that land would only cost $1.6 million? And it did so after arranging land deals that would have cost $3.2 million.

And remember when Malheur County officials said they were surprised to learn the state would only pay for land needed for the shipping center? The claim was made months after state officials made clear to the county it wasn’t paying ground for industrial parks.

There have been other instances, but these suffice to establish the sloppiness and even distortion of reality by county officials. They have little reason to wonder why people are so suspicious now of their claims.

Before Malheur County plunks down one more dollar on its land speculation, this independent review is essential. Without this blue ribbon review, the community will be at the mercy of county officials who seem to have little regard for public opinion – or the taxpayer dollar. – LZ

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