The boards of commissioners for Umatilla and Morrow counties had not sat down together for more than a decade. During their meeting Friday morning in Heppner, the two boards agreed that they have faced similar challenges in the intervening years.
Commissioners Melissa Lindsay, Don Russell and Jim Doherty of Morrow County hosted their Umatilla County counterparts, Larry Givens, Bill Elfering and George Murdock, at the Bartholomew Building, Morrow County’s new administrative home. Several Morrow County department heads also attended, as did Umatilla County counsel Doug Olsen. The chit chat lasted a moment before the two boards dug into several topics that affect both counties, starting with workforce and housing.
More than 1,000 people will move into Umatilla County to work during the next three years, Elfering said, including 600 in data centers for careers that pay $62,000 a year. With that kind of income they can afford a house, he said — but there have to be houses to buy.
The Great Recession forced much of the skilled labor that builds homes to leave the two counties, he continued, and without local homes they will likely look elsewhere, perhaps in the Tri-Cities region of Washington.
Murdock said data technicians are already entering Blue Mountain Community College’s tech training center in Boardman and getting hired before they finish the program. The need for those jobs is only going to increase, he said, as more data centers come online in the area.
Russell said the new 240-unit apartment complex under construction in Boardman could alleviate some of the coming housing crunch, but housing incentives also could play a role — programs Elfering expressed interest in. Russell said the county has a deal to pay workers of Tillamook Cheese roughly $7,000 for buying a new home in the county. Lindsay said the program boosted the tax base, particularly in the south of the county.
She also said enticing people to live where they work goes beyond a good job and home. They also want conveniences that include nearby shopping and restaurants, and Doherty added that mass transit would be a benefit.
Meeting all these infrastructure needs is critical, Lindsay said, while at the same time making sure land use is not pushing people out.
“We don’t have to do it like Portland,” she said.
The two boards moved on to discussion about water issues and irrigation, and commissioners from both counties stressed the need to pull more water from the Columbia River to boost local agriculture production and the economy.
Russell said Idaho already takes 6 percent of the river’s water, and Washington takes 4 percent, while Oregon uses just. 03 percent, despite the fact that the land in Eastern Oregon produces more per acre than Idaho. Doherty said taking 1 percent more from the Columbia River would result in $1 billion in economic growth.
“Maybe we should just shut Idaho down and feed the world from here,” Russell quipped.
Commissioners and Morrow County staff also chimed in about how well the two counties work together in overlapping areas. That includes each county’s dispatch center serving as the other’s backup, and Morrow County contracting with Umatilla County to handle environmental health responsibilities such as restaurant and public pool inspections.
Murdock noted the planning for this meeting started seven months ago. Lindsay said they should not have to wait that long to meet again.
Other tidbits the meeting revealed:
• Morrow County now requires new wind farms to install aircraft detection technology that eliminates the flashing lights on the turbines at night. Russell said people complain about the bright, red flashing lights obstructing the night sky. The technology, which is new, detects aircraft some distance away, then turns on the lights.
• The counties need nurses in their public health departments but attracting the is a problem, primarily because the salaries the counties can offer can’t compete with what private practice can pay.
•Wolves and wildfires came up over the grilled chicken lunch. Commissioners said they noticed the Portland-metro area sure took notice of the Eagle Creek Fire in the west end of the Columbia River Gorge and its affect on air quality. Russell said those same Oregonians “didn’t give a rat’s ass” when wildfire ravaged more than 110,000 acres in the John Day area and destroyed dozens of home in 2015.
•Morrow County got a great deal on the furniture for the Bartholomew Building, which houses several county departments and the big conference room where the meeting took place. Karen Wolff, Morrow County human resources director, took the Umatilla County group on a tour of the building and explained the furniture was state surplus, only three years old. The county had to buy it all in one swoop for $10,000.
That included delivery, which took six semis and three moving trucks. The haul brought tables, desks, chairs and five refrigerators.
“They had to use the moving trucks because the semis were overweight,” she said.
The county stuffed the furniture in warehouses and the old school in Lexington, she said. After outfitting the Bartholomew Building, there was plenty left.
Wolff said the county first asked schools and other organizations to take what they wanted, then offered what was left to the public to take for free.