As this calendar year draws to a close, I want to summarize some of the important events for Umatilla County government in 2004. What follows, in no particular order, are some of the highlights from my point of view.
Incineration Begins: In 1986 Congress passed legislation to eliminate the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile, of which 11.7 percent was stored at the Umatilla Chemical Depot. Our local Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program began in 1989. Sixteen years later, with our county safety programs operational, the first weapons were destroyed on Sept. 8. The CSEPP program will continue until all the weapons are eliminated.
450 MHz Tactical Radio System: This $9 million project was also part of CSEPP. It began operating last July. The project took three years to complete, and it brings regionwide communication capabilities for day-to-day and emergency use for 36 fire, police and ambulance agencies in Umatilla and Morrow counties. Such a system is unheard of for a county our size, and would be unattainable were it not for CSEPP.
Elections 2004: Because of what happened in the 2000 Florida elections, the federal government passed major election reform legislation. Since counties run elections, it fell on us to implement the new mandates, even though the system we had in place worked fine and was completely paid for. But we complied, purchased a new system, and used it in this year's general election. Nearly 80 percent of the registered voters in Umatilla County cast ballots. Once again the election department staff and volunteers did an outstanding job, and the election went off without a hitch.
Courthouse Union Settlement: In all the years I have been involved in negotiations, none have gone as smoothly as this year. The union team, under the leadership of Chris Bodewig, bargained hard and smart, and we hammered out a contract, which was ratified by the union after only a handful of negotiating sessions.
Responding to the Voters: Voters made their wishes known in two big ways in November: Measure 37 was approved and the sheriff's levy was not. Umatilla County now has in place its Measure 37 process, which we have tried to make user-friendly. Sheriff John Trumbo is responding to the election results. As with all our services, we will do the best job we can with the resources provided.
Environmental Health: During the past legislative session, a bill was signed into law that transferred responsibility for environmental health inspections and licensing of restaurants to the counties. This past year we have been preparing to begin providing inspections and licensing in Umatilla County as part of our Public Health Department.
Eastern Oregon Alliance: Umatilla County has been part of the coming together of local governments, education, businesses and other interests in Eastern Oregon. The Eastern Oregon Alliance has become an effective voice for our collective interests. The alliance was the leading proponent in the development of the Office of Rural Policy, which will be a voice in the Legislature for Eastern Oregon. Gov. Kulongoski supported the concept, and the Office of Rural Policy is up and running.
West County Building: Over the last decade, most of the growth in Umatilla County has taken place in the Hermiston area county. For several years we have been working on how to better deliver county government services to those citizens. We concluded we needed a consolidated facility and have been saving and working toward that end. Under Commissioner Dennis Doherty's leadership this project has moved forward. This fall we selected a contractor and authorized the financial plan.
Economic Development: We are fortunate that the county's tax base has continued to grow. One reason is the role our Economic Development Department plays in recruiting new businesses, retention of those we have, and helping others to grow and expand. We also assist other jurisdictions in the county with their economic development needs. This department also coordinates the Lewis and Clark activities and oversees Harris Park.
County Staff: I am proud to be associated with my fellow county employees. We have a dedicated, hard working group of individuals who provide a wide array of public services.
They are your neighbors, the people you sit next to at ball games, church and concerts. Our employees could command higher salaries in the private sector or with other government agencies. But they choose to work for you, sometimes under a lot of pressure and short timelines, being criticized by unhappy citizens, and not receiving many pats on the back.
I am honored to work alongside them. We are looking forward to 2005, and whatever challenges it may bring, not the least of which is to provide the best services we can for the citizens of Umatilla County.
Bill Hansell is completing his 22nd year as a Umatilla County Commissioner. He was raised in Athena, where he and his wife make their home. He is the fifth generation of his family to call Umatilla County home.