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Gorge Commission budget spurs protest

For the first time in its 27-year history, both the chair and vice chair of the Gorge Commission have resigned their posts – but are staying on the commission – in a disagreement over the budget.

The commission met Friday, Aug. 22, to approve a 2015-17 budget request to be forwarded to the Oregon governor. (A similar request to Washington is due in September.) The ambitious request is almost double the current level, and includes money for four new staff — three of them planners – and significant funding for contracted work on recreation, transportation and urban area boundaries.

Jim Middaugh, representing Multnomah County, and Janet Wainwright, a Washington governor appointee, tendered their resignations as chair and vice chair, respectively, and also abstained from voting on the budget request.

A third commissioner, Gorham Blaine, representing Hood River County, didn’t abstain, but declined to vote. The eight other commissioners approved the budget request, which seeks $1.7 million for the 2015-17 biennium from Oregon. The current biennium total from Oregon is $891,000.

Because both states must contribute the same amount to the commission, the Oregon request equals a total biennial request of $3.4 million, up from $1.7 million currently.

Though he has his own strong opposition to the budget, Middaugh said he felt the most important message from the meeting was that “a solid majority” of the commission backed the budget.

“I’m definitely going to support the majority direction. I think that’s the appropriate role of a commissioner.”

He said he abstained from voting because “I would have liked to have a little more time to go through it and I believe it’s best if the commission under-promises and over-delivers at this time, and there were a lot of things [in the new budget], all very important, and I’m just not sure we can do them all.

“I’ve been fairly consistent in suggesting we need to narrow our focus and really deliver.”

While Middaugh felt the request was so large it reflected poorly on the public sector, Gorge Commissioner Rodger Nichols, of The Dalles, said the increased request was so small in relation to the entire state budgets of Oregon and Washington that it amounts to “budget dust.”

Nichols added, “We hear support from the governor’s office in Oregon [for the size of the request] and hope that’s matched in Washington. And this would restore some four full-time equivalent positions that have been cut over the last four years. It’s not asking for new, it’s asking to get us back to basically where we were.”

Middaugh said in terms of priorities, his most important focus was reducing the backlog of land use applications in Klickitat County.

Klickitat County never approved its own scenic area land use ordinance — the other five gorge counties have — so residents there living within the scenic area must go to the commission for land use permits.

Commission staff was almost halved with the onset of the recession, and permit applications also dropped off significantly. But now applications have picked back up, and there is a backlog of 35 applications awaiting review.

People have been told the wait could be a year for their application just to be looked at, much less approved. As a consequence, some residents have simply ignored the approval process and done improvements to their property anyway, the commission has heard.

The budget request includes two full-time planners who would work on those land use applications. The commission asked Klickitat County last fall for help in easing the backlog, and Klickitat County agreed, but the exact form that help would take is still being discussed, and negotiations have not always gone smoothly.

Middaugh said he believes Klickitat County residents “should have a reasonable opportunity to improve their property in a timely way.”

In addition to the two planners who would focus on Klickitat County applications, the budget request includes one new principal planner (to oversee the two existing planners) and one new resource specialist who would work on a variety of issues, from recreation to pine tree bug infestations.

Contracted help would include $250,000 per biennium to develop recreation policy, and $120,000 per biennium to continue work on an urban area expansion policy.

Blaine, who didn’t vote on the budget, said he felt the budget process was rushed and there was poor communication between the commission’s executive director, Darren Nichols, and the commission.

Nichols could not be reached for comment.

Blaine wanted the commission to spend more time choosing priorities for the budget. He also didn’t agree with the amount of money sought for contract work. He would rather see that plowed into staffing.

Wainwright could not be reached for comment. She has been a strong advocate for the budget in Olympia and Blaine said she has said she will continue to advocate for the budget.

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