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Waste role sparks county conflict

A spill of agricultural chemicals into a stream years ago led to the creation of the household hazardous waste program in Wasco County.

The brainchild of an employee of the county’s public health department, the program has been a part of that department ever since. That department has gone on to recently become its own entity — a years-long process — and had every expectation of keeping the hazardous waste program with it.

But a late turn of events has Wasco County and the newish public health agency — called North Central Public Health District — both vying for the right to house the small program. It currently has one full-time worker and four part-timers.

At a sometimes contentious meeting of the public health district’s board of directors Tuesday, Feb. 11, the board voted 7-1 against a motion to turn control of the program over to Wasco County.

Teri Thalhofer, director of North Central Public Health, said the plan all along — since work first began in 2009 to become its own entity — was to keep the hazardous waste program within public health.

It’s a natural fit, she has said.

But last summer, just as the paperwork was signed creating the public health district, the nine-member steering committee that oversees the Hazardous Waste program began reconsidering where it wanted its program housed.

It invited Wasco County and public health to submit lead agency proposals.

It unanimously chose Wasco County in an October vote, and sent a letter to the public health board in January requesting the health board honor that vote.

The health board in January tabled the discussion until February, and then firmly voted against allowing the transfer at its Tuesday meeting.

However, health board chair Mike Smith said that, given the steering committee’s wishes, the program will probably end up with Wasco County, which plans to run the program through its planning department.

The health board just wanted time to properly plan for the separation, Smith said.

However, he said later he would recommend Sherman County, which he represents as a county commissioner, drop out of the program if it went with Wasco County.

He felt Wasco County’s proposal didn’t have the scientific depth of public health’s option, and having planning department oversight might not be a logical fit.

“Where would you house hazardous waste? Seems like public health, because it’s a public health issue,” Smith said.

Issues behind the steering committee request to stay with Wasco County were themselves disputed.

Steve Kramer, Wasco County Commission representative on the health board, and chair of the hazardous waste steering committee, said the steering committee sought the change for several reasons.

He said one problem was meeting minutes “were not being taken properly.” He added, Wasco County’s proposal “seemed more transparent in terms of FTE allocation.”

He also said, “There [were] some concerns the numbers and budget weren’t all being given out.”

Thalhofer said, “I’ve never received a request for a budget that was not responded to. Ever.”

She said she was only asked once by one member of the steering committee to explain how administrative dollars in the hazardous waste budget were accounted for, and she provided it.

“He was happy with the explanation.”

Later, she said she welcomed the opportunity to address the steering committee’s concerns, which had never been expressed to her orally or in writing, nor were they reflected in their meeting minutes.

Both entities raised issues that supported their respective positions.

Wasco County Administrative Officer Tyler Stone said the agreement governing the nine-member hazardous waste steering committee gives it sole authority to choose its host agency.

Thalhofer has disputed that, saying the health district’s attorney believes the health district’s formation agreement trumps the steering committee’s agreement.

Wasco County, meanwhile, has its own legal opinion saying the steering committee’s agreement is binding.

Carrie Ramsey-Smith, public health board member, said of the steering committee, “When did they get so powerful?”

But the key issue, both Thalhofer and chairman Smith said, was a state law that specifically forbids transferring duties from one government entity to another if it causes a worker to lose wages.

Thalhofer estimated four public health employees who spend part of their time working on hazardous waste would lose a combined $32,000.

Wasco County officials noted that some of their own employees lost duties when public health was transferred to its own entity. Nobody lost wages in that transfer, however.

Stone said the county found other work for its employees, and said public health has that choice too.

Thalhofer has said public health dollars are program specific and can’t be spent in non-designated ways.

Stone asked, “Unless we pay for the impact for those four employees” you’re not willing to approve the transfer?

Smith said, “I’m not saying any of those words.” He said he just wondered how to comply with the law requiring employees not lose wages because their duties were transferred to another entity.

The program, now called Hazardous Waste and Recycling, is funded — its budget this year is $336,950 — almost entirely by tipping fees from the Wasco County landfill. It provides hazardous waste disposal and recycling education in Wasco, Sherman and Hood River counties.

Thalhofer said she was hesitant to fill one vacant part-time program position given the current uncertainty. A good portion of the budget, some $124,000, goes toward the cost of recycling events.

Ramsey-Smith criticized the steering committee’s effort to switch lead agencies.

“It feels really sly. It feels really backward to me and I’m offended by the whole process,” she said. She added that it was people who were being affected by a potential loss of wages. “These are not numbers on a piece of paper. These are people.”

She added, “I have not had anybody from the steering committee say, ‘This bothers me,’” in terms of hearing any reasons for why they want to switch lead agencies.

Thalhofer echoed that sentiment, saying, “I still have not received any formal communication ... about what their concerns were and why they wanted to move away from public health.”

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