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MCCOG debates its future viability

The Mid-Columbia Council of Governments board got a harsh analysis Tuesday, hearing that it lacked leadership and had image problems, as it considers whether to remain as a stand-alone entity.

The candid review was undertaken by interim MCCOG Director David Meriwether. “I could say this universally: I didn’t find a lot of love out there and I talked to a lot of people,” he said.

The most visible, longstanding problem has involved the Area Agency on Aging, one of four entities run by the COG. The COG is seen as charging too much in overhead costs to the AAA, leaving the entity less money for providing services, which include 12 congregate meal programs and three home delivered meal programs in the COG’s five-county area.

Meriwether found that the COG’s per-meal contribution to AAA was about half of the norm for the other three COGs in the state that also had AAA.

He said of AAA, “I don’t think it’s been well served under MCCOG for a long time, in my opinion. It’s done more harm than good.” Any changes to the budget mix for AAA “have come at the expense of programs, not at the expense of MCCOG.”

Meriwether said that since he has overseen the program with the departure of the last director, that’s five AAA directors in the last seven and a half years.

He said the state was asked to review the AAA program here in 2012, and it came up with a list of recommendations, none of which have been done. He said the report “could’ve been written six months ago. [I heard] the same concerns and same comments from the community.”

He said AAA is not in the COG’s “wheelhouse. My suggestion is find a new organization” to run it.

He noted the AAA program was never meant to provide all the funding for programs; rather, it was meant to supplement other funding. But it has become a key funder.

The COG board will meet again on Aug. 8 to further discuss how to proceed. If the COG wished to remain, it needed to broaden its scope and find other funding sources, Meriwether said.

It needed to pick an executive director with a “fire in their belly” who is “a rainmaker.”

Board member Tom McCoy, a Sherman County commissioner, said the choice was “either disband MCCOG or make it a lot bigger and stronger.”

Other COGs, Meriwether said, have school districts and fire districts as members. This one just has five counties, and the cities within them, as members.

Meriwether told the board that two entities have expressed interest in running certain of the programs that COG provides.

Greater Oregon Behavioral Health, Inc. is the single biggest user of the COG’s transportation service, paying $3.3 million a year for medical transports. It has expressed an interest in overseeing AAA, the transportation program, and the workforce program.

It has no interest in the one remaining program, the building codes service, but the Mid-Columbia Economic Development District (MCEDD) could be a natural home for that program, and the transportation service, since it already provides regional transportation planning, Meriwether said.

Meriwether had high praise for MCEDD, saying, “I personally think the executive director of MCEDD is perhaps the most accomplished public entity executive I know of. That’s Amanda Hoey.”

He said at one time the MCCOG and MCEDD were consolidated, but they eventually separated.

He suggested the COG board could seek requests for proposals from any entities that are interested in taking over services now provided by the COG.

The COG has about a $12 million budget, and more than half of it, $6.4 million, falls under the transportation service.

The building codes division has a significant cash reserve of about $3.5 million, mostly coming from wind farm projects in Sherman and Gilliam counties and Google projects in The Dalles.

A question arose of, if the building codes service was transferred to another entity, or broken up among several, how would that reserve be disbursed.

As for current building codes work, the vast majority of it comes from within the city of The Dalles, Meriwether said. If the city and county were considering consolidating planning work, and doing building codes in-house, he suggested they physically locate at the MCCOG office on Kelly Avenue.

He said if the city decided to do its own building codes work, there wouldn’t be enough work left over to be viable long-term for the rest of the region. The reserves would be enough to run on for a number of years, he said.

Also at issue is the fact that two loans were taken out of those reserves: one of $490,000 to buy the COGs current building, at 1113 Kelly Ave.; and one of $92,000 to help establish the new transportation center, at 802 Chenowith Loop Rd.

If the COG dissolved, it would have to pay off those loans.

The smallest entity, the workforce program, has been steadily whittled away, going from 20 employees in 2002 to just 1.8 now. Meriwether said the youth workforce development program is relocating to Columbia Gorge Community College in August, and perhaps the entire program could go there. Meriwether said the people who are passionate about various programs, such as the AAA, are not on the board. Rather, the board is peopled with elected officials from cities and counties, whose focus is, naturally, their own entity.

“We are essentially a council of counties and I think that leaves a lot of people out of the room,” Meriwether said.

He said there are 10 school districts in the five-county area that could be approached.

He provided an overview of the varied entity memberships in other COGs in the state, and said, “It’s not just cities and counties – except here.”

He said if the COG wanted to remain, it could reach out to the 18 cities in its region and see if they were interested in joint services like human resources, fiscal services, or payroll.

That is the function of councils of government, he said, for smaller entities to band together and gain economy of scale to provide services at less cost.

One board member asked why the COG hadn’t previously reached out to offer more services, and Meriwether said the board possibly just didn’t think of it. He added, “I don’t think this organization has been historically well-led….That includes the board.”

Hesaid both the transportation service and building codes service were well run and well-received, as was the workforce program.


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