For Scott Hege, problem-solving and economic development are central passions in his role as Wasco County commissioner.
Since 2010, Hege has served in Position 1 on the county board. He faces Nora Ferguson in the May 20 primary election.
“I want people who grow up here to be able to be employed here and to have a decent job,” Hege said.
Toward that end, he recently organized a round-table discussion with state and federal economic officials to inform them about the issues in rural areas, and how these communities may differ from their urban counterparts.
While the county may not have a lot of direct control over how the economy fares, it can help foster an environment where the economy can succeed, he said.
Hege’s background is mechanical engineering and business. He served as executive director of the Port of The Dalles for more than 14 years and now is the principal in a construction consulting firm.
Hege said he learned quite a few things in his freshman term as commissioner. After being elected on a platform of change and transparency, he learned that change sometimes requires a subtle approach.
“I learned there was a pretty strong culture at the county,” he said. “Going in I thought a lot of changes needed to be made and I thought it would be easy to go in and make them quickly. It wasn’t nearly as easy as I thought it would be.”
Instead, it required a more strategic approach.
“You can force change, but it’s better to get change to be accepted,” he said.
Among the changes he had a hand in was switching the commission over from paper to electronic agendas, reducing paper use and creating more convenience for commissioners and the public.
Agenda packets are now on the website prior to the meetings.
“One of the primary things going in was feeling like there was less transparency than I felt any government should have,” Hege said.
“Essentially, almost everything at the county is public information,” he said, but it was sometimes a challenge to get that information.
One of the key things he sought was to make public the Geographic Information System (GIS). The information is valuable to realtors and others dealing with land and infrastructure issues. An intern helped format the information so it was usable by the public. He also believes the county has seen improved customer service in the planning department during his tenure, one of the points he campaigned for in 2010.
Under its new director, John Roberts, Hege says it has a more customer service-oriented attitude.
“It’s all about helping the county and its people be successful — that’s the goal of the planning department.”
Since the agency has responsibility for enforcing land use regulations, not every request can be fully granted, “but [they] help you get to the point where you can be happy with what you can do.”
The budget condition has also improved, Hege said, allowing the county to set money aside in general fund reserves.
Road issues remain a challenge Hege hopes to tackle in a second term. Cuts before Hege’s tenure have allowed the road department to continue to maintain roads as federal payments — about half of the overall road department — have declined, but backfilling the budget has started to eat into the department’s beginning fund balance. A road advisory committee has come up with recommendations on how to improve that situation and Hege expects to hear more about that in upcoming months. But ultimately, he says the voters will decide what they are willing to pay for.
Hege also expects to hear more about a county mass gathering ordinance soon. The county was criticized for not having an ordinance in place this year after noise complaints about last year’s What the Festival. He said growing day-to-day planning department demands as the economy has improved have delayed development of new rules.
Maintaining the jail and its $2 million budget is also a big challenge, especially since Immigration and Customs Enforcement stopped housing as many illegal immigrants there, spurring a host of challenges for counties.
Ultimately, he said, generating revenue from those empty beds is what makes the jail affordable for the counties, so finding new opportunities is important.