The five taxing districts and Umatilla County just can’t seem to agree on what to do with $750,000 from the community service fee in the Echo wind farm’s strategic investment program know as SIP.
The deadline to decide, April 16, is looming, but sides seem to be digging deeper into their oppositions and don’t have an exact plan on when to meet to figure it all out.
The dividing line pits the West Umatilla Vector Control District and the Umatilla County Special Library District against the county, the Echo Fire District, the Echo Cemetery District and the Port of Umatilla.
To have an agreement, 75 percent of the taxing districts need to vote for a proposal. The county does not have voting rights in this matter, even though it stands to receive 55 percent of the community service fee funds.
The fire district, cemetery district and port – which amount to about 68 percent of the vote – have signed an agreement the county proposed. They agreed to hand over the funds that amount to $750,000 over a 15-year time span – starting with $76,773 in the first year and ramping down to $23,032 in the 15th year – to a community benefit fund for the city of Echo.
The vector control district and the library district have refused to sign off on this plan, offering a “hybrid” proposal.
“We feel that a creative formula can be found that meets the needs of the districts and the citizens of the community,” said Ron Montgomery, manager of the West Umatilla Vector Control District. He also emphasized his district isn’t against a community fund for Echo.
But vector control and the library district have an alternative, and it takes a cue from Morrow County. The Echo wind farm sits in both Umatilla and Morrow Counties, so both are dividing up the community service fee portion of the SIP. Morrow county divided its take in January, at which time taxing districts voted for the community service fee to be divided among the special districts, which meant all except the county and the school district.
The proposed hybrid model for Umatilla County asks the county to do the same thing, essentially give up its portion, and then for each taxing district to contribute a percentage to the Echo community fund. That percentage hasn’t been determined.
“We would like to share in an equitable portion and it’s on the small side,” said Ken Reading, Umatilla County Special Library District coordinator. “We could support this one because it allows each of the special districts … to keep or put into the Echo community foundation something they think is reasonable.”
He added that his district would like to contribute to the Echo fund but still keep some independence.
Umatilla County Commissioner Larry Givens said he saw this as the vector control and library district asking the county to donate its portion of the community service fee without asking the same of the taxing districts.
Merle Gherke, with the Echo Fire District, said he doesn’t understand where the vector control district and library district are coming from. He would like to see more details, such as specific percentages to go to the Echo community fund. He also wanted to make sure that if, for instance, the library district received funds from the Echo area, that a similar portion of the district’s funds would be seen contributing to the Echo library.
“This isn’t a lot of money to either the vector control or the library district,” Gherke said. He said his district still agrees with the proposal to send the money to the Echo community fund. “I’m still hoping they’ll see the light and go with it.”
Janie Enright, with the Echo Cemetery District, said as far as she knows her district still supports the plan to give the funds to Echo.
Kim Puzey, director of the Port of Umatilla, said his board also supports the funds going to Echo, but that move also supports the part of the port’s general mission, which may not be the case for the other districts.
“The port, as a part of its mission, includes economic and community development,” Puzey said. “Community development is in alignment with having these funds go to the (Echo) community. … So we’re directing these funds to the community, which is something that makes perfect sense for my commission.”
Givens said he thinks much of this dispute comes down to trust on the part of the vector control and the library district.
“They felt like they didn’t have a voice,” he said. “They have to give it all and not decide how to spend it.”
The vector control and library district would need to put a large amount of trust into the Echo community benefit fund and its council to be willing to put in its portion of the SIP community service fee, Givens speculated.
“People look at the money and think of what they could do with the money and not want to give it up,” he said. “There’s a huge trust factor that has to work for these things to be developed.”
“I think it’s just a matter of vision and interests and each of the special districts in the county want to do the best for their interests,” Reading said.
On March 18, all five taxing districts sat in a room together for the first time at a county commissioner’s meeting.
“That represents a huge leap forward,” Montgomery said.
But, because no agreement was reached, more meetings are necessary. Yet, over the course of the last week, the East Oregonian asked each district if it was a aware of any plans for the five to meet again. No one was aware of any specific plans, though each said they thought something would come together.
The commissioners scheduled another meeting on April 1, hoping an agreement would be reached by then. The special districts have until April 16 to come to a decision. If they don’t, the county will forward the issue on to the Oregon Economic and Community Development Department, which will settle it.
The OECDD hasn’t had to decide on a SIP community service fee agreement yet, so this is new ground, officials said.
Commissioner Bill Hansell said OECDD could do several things, including agreeing with either of the proposals, refuse the idea of an Echo community fund, divide the money amongst the taxing districts or come up with its own program.
Samantha Bates, East Oregonian – http://www.eastoregonian.info/main.asp?SectionID=13&SubSectionID=48&ArticleID=90665
Click the links below for more history on the Echo Wind Farm and its strategic investment project, which provides millions into the local revenue stream directly from the wind farm: