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Gorge panel mulls budget

The Gorge Commission is finessing a budget request it hopes will boost its staffing – but just how much money to ask for is still being weighed.

With a preliminary administrative assessment saying the commission needs 25 full-time staff to fully implement its mission, Gorge Commission Executive Director Darren Nichols laid out six possible budget options at the commission’s July 8 meeting.

They ranged from requests for 16.5 full-time workers to seeking just two new staff. Altogether, the six requests, coupled with the commission’s current 5.6 FTE, equaled the 25 staff suggested in the assessment.

Rather than choosing one or more options, the commission decided to wait for further meetings with the Washington and Oregon governor’s offices.

The commission delegated power to its executive committee to take feedback from the governor’s offices and formulate a budget request.

Commissioners and audience members had widely varying notions of how much the commission should ask for.

Michael Lang, conservation director with the Friends of the Columbia Gorge, said of a potential large request, “Believe me, if you go forward with this, you’ll lose credibility — no one does this.”

Commissioner Janet Wainwright, a governor appointee from Washington, said, “As the person that will be leading the charge on the Washington side, I have concerns about this budget.”

She felt it would be more effective to seek small, incremental increases over several budget cycles.

“I just don’t want to be seen as the agency that’s asking for more than everybody else is.”

But Nichols said the commission had a “once in a generation opportunity” to make a big request.

He’s basing that on input from governor’s office staff in Washington. A fiscal office staffer suggested getting an administrative analysis to establish the true needs of the commission.

So the commission hired specialists at the University of Washington and Portland State University to do the analysis, which cost $40,000. Preliminary numbers — which could change — came back suggesting 25 staff were needed.

Given those factors, Nichols is confident the time is ripe for a big request.

“I know it’s not typical for agencies to do this [to seek a large increase], I worked for public agencies for years,” Nichols said. But he said he has input from governor’s office staffers that “It’s OK to do that.”

Gorham Blaine, representing Hood River County, agreed with Nichols, saying the commission was “deeply behind in all our responsibilities.”

Commissioners Dan Ericksen and Rodger Nichols, both from The Dalles, also agreed a big increase was warranted.

“Now seems to be the right time to ask for the whole amount. I don’t have any thought that we’re going to get it, but put it on the table,” Ericksen said.

But Darren Webster, commissioner representing Clark County, feared incredulous reactions from legislators.

“I want to be smart about this,” he said.

Commissioner Jim Middaugh, representing Multnomah County, agreed.

“I guarantee there are literally legislators who will laugh out loud at this budget,” he said.

Nichols told commissioners it would take 16.5 full-time workers just to continue the current workload on a sustained basis. The commission currently has just 5.6 full-time staff and is steadily falling behind.

Currently, each state pays $873,000 per biennium. To pay for 25 FTE, it would cost $1.8 million per biennium from each state.

At its height, the commission had 10.5 workers in 2007. But cuts quickly followed. In 2009-10 the commission lost 30 percent of its budget and 45 percent of its staff.

“We’ve been enduring this growing backlog of work,” Nichols said of the result. This is felt most sharply in Klickitat County, the only gorge county that didn’t adopt its own gorge land use rules. Instead, the gorge commission provides those planning services. With the recession fading, more development requests are coming in, and applicants are facing wait times of up to a year.

County residents have said the wait is so long some people simply don’t get permits.

Nichols said staff work pressures are not sustainable.

For that reason, he felt the most critical budget option was one that included six new FTE in administration.

That option does not include new planners, and Keith Brown, president of the Friends of the Columbia Gorge, said he was “flabbergasted” that planners were not considered the top priority. An alternate “planner option” would add eight new planners.

He said the commission heard earlier about its backlog of planning cases in Klickitat County.

“You’ve got to put on the priority list getting planners in,” Brown said.

Oregon has asked agencies to present a base budget, and a budget with a 20 percent increase. An added 20 percent would be $175,000.

Washington, meanwhile, has asked agencies to present budgets with a 15 percent cut. It is typical for states to ask agencies to prepare reduction budget scenarios, Middaugh said. Washington has significantly increased the education funding it must provide due to a legal ruling, he said.

READ NEXT TOP STORY: For the record, July 29

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