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‘Big ask’ for Gorge Commission budget

With a report in hand saying its staffing should be at 25 employees, the Gorge Commission is fixing to go big when it makes its next budget requests to Oregon and Washington.

Preparations for the 2015-17 biennial budget are underway and commissioners talked at their June meeting about what level of request they were comfortable with.

All felt a big request was reasonable, and would come back with just how big at their meeting in July.

Two schools of government — from Portland State University and the University of Washington — were hired by the commission in early 2014 to do a $46,000 administrative analysis. Their preliminary findings are that, conservatively, the commission needs 25 employees to do all the tasks assigned to it under law. Their final report is due in October.

A 25-person staff would require $3.6 million from each state, or a two-year budget of $7.2 million, said Darren Nichols, executive director of the commission.

Its current biennial budget is $1.7 million.

Asked if such a request was likely to be granted, given tight state budgets, Nichols said the amount was “pocket change” in terms of an overall state budget.

All 13 commissioners will not only write their own letter of support for an increased budget, but will also approach other individuals or groups about adding their support.

The most employees the commission has ever had was 9.5 full-time employees. Now it’s down to 5.6 staff.

Nichols said the commission has long known it lacked staff to do its job. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, it only had enough staff to do 20 to 25 percent of the work needed. “Since then, our resources have dropped,” he said.

Commissioner Gorham Blaine said it is a “strange irony” that the commission spent money to prove it needed money, but he also said one thing that presses on him is “we have 1,000 things to do and no money to do anything.”

Nichols said after the meeting, “We’ve lost almost half of our staff and 30 percent of our overall budget, so it really is time to take a hard look at what the commission needs to fulfill the commitment that Oregon and Washington have made to one another to protect the gorge, to enhance gorge resources and to support the communities that are struggling to thrive in this carefully protected landscape.

To do that requires a substantial investment from the two states,” he said.

One key example of undone work is that the commission is overdue on a mandatory 10-year update to its management plan. It was supposed to be done this year, but there’s no staff capacity to do it.

“They want it updated every 10 years. It’s time they funded us so we can do that,” said Commissioner Keith Chamberlain.

Commission staff is dedicated and hardworking, Nichols said, but the pace and workload is “unsustainable” and staff is “overwhelmed.”

The administrative analysis also looked at similar agencies, and found one bi-state planning commission, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, had 64 full-time employees, Nichols said.

Another one had only a handful of staff, 5, but had a powerful 21-member commission staffed with governors and legislators and the political pull to call forth other government resources as needed.

Not only does the commission want a bigger budget, it also wants agencies it works with, such as the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, to have sufficient resources for planning, policy making and managing the scenic area.

“Even if we get robust, if we don’t have strong partners, we won’t succeed,” said Commissioner Lynn Burditt, a non-voting commission member representing the U.S. Forest Service.

The commission discussed asking for increases over perhaps three biennia, with a promise to deliver results at each step of the way.

Commissioner Bowen Blair said he wants to see an increase in enforcement capabilities, given recent testimony to the commission that residents are skipping getting gorge building permits because the wait is so long.

Commissioners felt the order of priority was to first increase administrative capacity, to a level that Nichols said would make it a “legitimate” public agency. “Once we have the agency administration stabilized and functional, immediately after that we really need to increase the regional planning, resource protection and economic development capacity. Those are the purposes of the national scenic area act,” he said.

The 25 added staff recommended by the analysis are in administration, planning, legal, data analysis, archaeology, urban area policy and public relations.

Added funding would first be focused on the commission’s priorities: recreation planning, urban area policy and improving relations with gorge tribes, Nichols said.

Recreation is booming in the gorge, with anywhere from 3.5 million to 10 million visitors a year, fueling a half billion dollar tourism industry.

Also a priority is picking up on an unfinished, major project called Vital Signs Indicators.

It is a set of indicators of the health of the gorge both in terms of natural resources and economic viability.

The indicators would be used to inform policy decisions of the commission.

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