APPARENTLY THE GROUNDHOG SAW HIS SHADOW, because a light snowfall covered Highway 47 between Mist and Clatskanie and the greenery alongside it on Monday morning, the day after Groundhog’s Day. A few flakes were reported to have fallen in the area on Tuesday morning, when pre-dawn temperatures dipped to approximately 25 degrees.
An arctic blast, with daytime temperatures below or just slightly above freezing, and nights in the teens and 20s are expected Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Weather forecasters are predicting snow and possibly freezing rain on Saturday as moisture moves in before the temperatures begin to warm on Sunday when a possibly “messy” weather transition occurs. Chief Photo by Cindy Bloomer
by Deborah Steele Hazen
The Columbia County Jail will close by June 30 “unless there’s a new infusion of money.”
That was the message at a town hall meeting held last Thursday, Jan. 30, at the Port of St. Helens building (old Clatskanie Middle School) with the Columbia County board of commissioners Tony Hyde, Henry Heimuller and Earl Fisher, Sheriff Jeff Dickerson, Undersheriff Andy Moyer, Clatskanie Mayor Diane Pohl and Columbia City Mayor Cheryl Young.
The county commissioners, who placed an unsuccessful four-year local option levy for jail operations on last November’s ballot, said they would not, on their own initiative, put it on the ballot again, unless they were asked to do so by the citizens. Prior to the failure of the jail operations levy last fall, voters had turned down sheriff’s department levies several times, Heimuller pointed out.
By the end of the approximately two-and-a-half-hour-long meeting, the majority of the approximately 50 citizens in attendance raised their hands to indicate they would support a three-year levy for jail operations at a rate of approximately 58 cents per $1,000 of valuation – similar to what was proposed in the four-year levy turned down by voters in November.
In addition to the three-year sunset of the levy, Mayor Pohl suggested that the new levy proposal include a citizens’ jail operation oversight committee.
Concerned citizens in the south county area have already organized to circulate petitions to present to the county commissioners showing public support for a levy on the May ballot. The commissioners must make the decision by Feb. 19.
Petitions in favor of putting a jail levy on the ballot have been circulating without specifics, but potential supporters at last week’s meeting asked that details such as the amount, the three-year limit, and the citizens’ oversight committee be stipulated on the petition.
Mayor Pohl told The Chief Tuesday night that as soon as she received that language, petitions would be available to sign and circulate at the Clatskanie City Hall, 95 S. Nehalem Street.
Sheriff Explains Crisis
The discussion during the town hall included an explanation by Sheriff Dickerson regarding the $1,200,000 budget the sheriff’s office will have if the jail closes and all revenue from housing federal prisoners is lost.
A rumor that all of the $1,200,000 budget would be used for the patrol program if the jail closes, is untrue, Dickerson stressed. “My enforcement division costs the county about $650,000 and that’s it,” Dickerson said.
Also included in the $1,200,000 budget, in addition to minimal patrols and major crime investigation, is the custody program, serving papers, responding to court orders, the maintenance of the jail building, the operation of an around-the-clock booking facility, rental of 10 beds at the Polk County Jail in Dallas, and transportation of prisoners to the Polk County Jail.
If a levy is not passed, it is the plan to close the jail and rent 10 beds at the Polk County Jail for Columbia County’s worst offenders. All other arrestees – including those arrested by city police officers – would be “booked and released,” Dickerson said.
“We’ll have 10 beds filled with the most serious offenders.” Other offenders, some of whom would normally be held in jail will be “out there floating around,” Dickerson said.
An Unthinkable Outcome
“It’s just not a thinkable outcome for this county to not operate its own jail,” said Columbia County Circuit Court Judge Ted Grove.
Grove explained that roughly 70 to 80 percent of people arrested are drug and/or alcohol addicted. Incarceration allows an opportunity to get into rehabilitation programs. “Routinely rehab works,” Grove said. “It’s the only thing that does work.”
Many domestic violence suspects are also under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Being able to keep them in jail at least until they sober up, prevents tragedies, Grove said.
Citizens at the town hall asked about various ways to save enough money to continue operating the jail. Dickerson explained that the jail is currently operating with only 17.5 staff members, while a minimum of 21 is considered necessary. Five deputies must be on shift at any one time, 24 hours per day, seven days a week, and extra deputies are necessary to cover time off, vacations, sick time, mandatory training, etc.
Columbia County is still getting about $2 million per year for housing federal prisoners – which it would lose if the jail closed – but “the lion’s share of federal prisoners” are now going to the federal jail in Sheridan because of orders from the federal government, Dickerson said.
A Shrunken General Fund
The sheriff’s office continues to receive 25 percent of the county’s unrestricted general fund. But, Commissioner Fisher explained, that amount has shrunk from $11.7 million in 2011 to $8.7 million currently.
“It’s a reality we have to accept. We have less money, the base is smaller… The county budget is not a pretty thing to look at,” Fisher continued. County staff has been cut significantly, and most employees are furloughed without pay on Fridays.
What’s more, Heimuller noted, the economy was “much more vibrant 10 or 12 years ago… We’ve lost Trojan paying taxes, Boise paying taxes, we’ve lost most of our federal timber money. Last year we had just enough to cover the PERS (Public Employee Retirement System) increases. All of these things are creating the perfect storm that was predicted when the jail building was built.”
Heimuller emphasized, and The Chief archives confirm, that the county commission stated clearly in 1998 when the levy to build the jail was passed, that an operating levy would be needed in the future.
Various questions and suggestions from the audience - including the elimination of some county services, such as building inspection – were rejected as not resulting in enough savings to make a significant difference.
“Some things in the building department can be privatized, but certain things are statutorily required,” Fisher said.
A suggestion to eliminate some corporate tax exemptions, resulted in the explanation that those are state programs.
Tammy Maygra of Deer Island suggested raising the surface mining depletion fee and dedicating that to jail operation.
Economic Development is the Answer
“The only way out is more industry,” said Hyde, pointing out that in two years, the tax exemption for Global Partners Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery at Port Westward will expire and it will start paying taxes. Global plans further expansion that will result in more property tax valuation.
When Portland General Electric’s current construction of its Port Westward Unit II generating plant is completed, “a pretty good chunk of money will be coming in” through the Strategic Investment Program (SIP), Hyde said.
“If the citizens were to pass an operating levy for the jail, are you going to commit to keeping the general fund contribution at the same percentage,” the commissioners were asked.
“Unequivocably yes,” Heimuller said.
“If we were able to increase our budget (through added industrial valuation) within the life of the levy, I would submit that we would voluntarily reduce the levy’s amount,” said Hyde.
Mayor Pohl strongly agreed with the commissioners that economic development is the solution to the problem.
“We’ve got to quit fighting and scrapping when there are opportunities coming our way.”
She added that during the life of a three-year levy, should it pass, county leaders should “look outside the box, get development coming into the county, have some kind of citizen’s committee that can oversee the jail operation and how it’s working, so that folks feel it’s transparent. Maybe if we go to the folks with the information that it’s going to sunset, and that we’re all working on another way to get that money, they would support it.”
Mayor Young challenged the commissioners to “get some courage and get it back on the May ballot… Challenge everyone to really think about it” – that potentially dangerous criminals will be released back into the community almost immediately upon being arrested. “At what cost are we willing to see our jail close?”
“The last levy we did a horrible job of trying to sell it to the people,” said Columbia County Justice of the Peace Wally Thompson. “We didn’t explain it to them. We need to get to them and educate them about what it would be like without a jail. It’s so important.”
by Deborah Steele Hazen
Action on a lease option for the proposed $1.8 billion methanol plant at the Port Westward industrial park near Clatskanie is expected to be taken by the Port of St. Helens board of commissioners on Wednesday, Feb. 12.
The meeting will begin at 8:30 a.m., and the location has been changed from the Port office to the Columbia City Community Hall, 1840 2nd Street in Columbia City.
Northwest (NW) Innovation Works LLC is proposing to build a two-phase methanol manufacturing plant at Port Westward. The first phase represents a $1 billion investment, and the second phase is valued at approximately $800,000. Each phase would employ approximately 120 permanent workers.
Additionally, according to a presentation given by NW Innovation Works president Vee Godley at a Jan. 23rd Port commission meeting in Clatskanie, about 1,000 union construction workers would be employed during the two to three-year construction process for each phase. Hundreds of indirect jobs would also be associated with the major industrial development.
The proposed methanol plant would not use the railroad. Methanol (wood alcohol) is made through a process using natural gas, and the pipeline currently serving Port Westward is sufficient to supply the first phase of the plant.
NW Innovation Works is owned by Clean Energy Technology, a joint venture between the Chinese government’s China Academy of Sciences (CAS) and British Petroleum (BP).
CAS has the need for up to 10 “phases” of methanol production in the Pacific Northwest, Godley explained. A proposed plant in Kalama has also been announced recently. The Kalama and Port Westward proposals, and any forthcoming announcements for other “phases” elsewhere in the region, are not in competition with one another, Godley emphasized.
The methanol manufactured here would be used to produce olefin, a key compound employed in the manufacturing of numerous products from plastic water bottles to cell phone cases to polyester carpets. Olefin can also be produced with petroleum and coal. By replacing methanol plants in China that use coal or petroleum with natural gas-based plants in the Pacific Northwest, carbon emissions will be reduced by as much as 70 percent, according to the company.
Methanol manufactured at Port Westward would be shipped – two Panamax-class ships per week – from Port Westward to the city of Dalian, China.
The proposed methanol plant site is located on property that was not part of the original Beaver Army ammunition depot, but was purchased about a decade ago by the Summit Westward project, which did not come to fruition. The Port of St. Helens then purchased the property. It is not part of the land under long-term lease to Portland General Electric, and it is not part of the former Greenwood Resources property, also purchased by the Port, which is up for rezoning.
The proposed site of the methanol plant is already zoned for heavy industry. It is located about 1,000 yards (over half a mile) southeast of the Global Partners Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery, and even farther from PGE’s power generating facilities at Port Westward.
It is hoped to have the permits for the project in 12 to 18 months, immediately start breaking ground, and begin operating the first phase in early 2018.
by Adam J. Wehrley
Investing in the future, the Rainier City Council added to its watershed property at its meeting Monday, Feb 3.
That action came after a workshop in which representatives from the Portland and Western Railroad (P&W) and other stakeholders reported on planned rail improvements through downtown Rainier.
In conjunction with the council’s goal to reinvest a portion of revenues from timber harvests on the city’s approximately 1500 acres of watershed property into enlarging the city’s holdings, Mayor Jerry Cole negotiated the purchase of nearly 30 acres of property near Neer City Road, adjacent to existing city property.
The forest land is in its 15th year of reproduction and, according to the city forester Byron Rickert’s analysis, is in need of thinning. Rickert advised Mayor Cole to make the $95,000 offer which the land owner accepted.
Following an executive session to discuss the property purchase, the city council unanimously voted to authorize Mayor Cole to proceed with the purchase. The city manages its property on a 50-year rotation, harvesting 25-30 acres annually. In the watershed fund, the city budgeted $21,000 for property acquisition and $104,000 for future use. $325,000 remains in the contingency fund.
Acting both as a member of the governor’s regional solutions committee and as Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) northwest area 1 manager, Larry McKinley described the process for work on A Street
McKinley announced the intention to award an engineering contract to David Evans and Associates for the A Street project.
He also stated that Senator Betsy Johnson continues to secure funding for the project. McKinley explained that ODOT was leading the street improvements, while P&W would be doing the work directly on the rail.
He stated that previous engineering work, done by David Evans and Associates, has given those involved “a pretty good idea” of the work needing to be done.
Anticipated street and sidewalk work includes five crossings, a curb or barrier preventing cars from driving across the tracks elsewhere, and the rebuilding of about 2800 feet of street from Foss Maritime to the post office.
Although he described the older design as “pretty close” McKinley noted that adjustments had to be made.
Patrick Kerr of P&W described the work to be done on the rail itself and on the crossing gates. Heavier welded rail will be used to increase safety and allow higher speed, since the rails will be closed to car traffic. He said this will result in the trains being much quieter and causing less vibration.
He explained that laying and welding the rails would take a week to 10 days and trains would be scheduled during that time. The railroad through downtown Rainier has experienced very little settling or movement over its 120 years of use, according to Kerr.
He anticipates that, with controlled crossings, trains would travel through Rainier at 20-25 miles per hour.
When asked about oil train safety, Kerr explained that that tracks are inspected for hazards about two hours before every oil train passage and that speeds are kept lower. He emphasized that prevention is the key to rail safety.
Representing downtown businesses, Skip Lahti asked about notification about street closures and other issues which would interfere with business operations. McKinley explained that business owners would be notified of work schedules and whenever possible work which would block access to a business would be scheduled outside normal business hours. He did note that residences are also near worksites.
The preliminary cost estimate is $8.9 million according to Kerr. Street and rail improvements and utility repairs and alterations made necessary by the work will all be funded through various mechanisms.
Carol Ruiz of Gibbs & Olson, the city’s engineering consultants, explained that underground utilities will be inspected and work will be coordinated with street and rail work.
Councilor Sloan Nelson asked about storm water run-off containment. McKinley explained that, in line with regulations, that work would be done during ODOT’s street improvement work.
He also noted that all curbs and sidewalks would be repaired and brought into current handicap access compliance.
Kerr also explained that even with all the work being done, a quiet zone could not be guaranteed, but the railroad would work towards that.
Construction is expected to start in mid-2015.
Paul Langner of Teevin Bros. Land and Timber Co. said that Teevin is the largest rail user in the area and that trains prevent 40,000 semi-trucks annually from traveling through Rainier. If rail was lost, 40 percent of the jobs at the Rainier facility would be lost, Langner said.
Langner noted that he had attended 25 meetings since 1989 addressing rail issues in Rainier and that he “strongly encouraged” those present to move forward and avoid, “paralysis through analysis.”
Lahti encouraged those involved to commit to setting a schedule to move forward.
Mayor Jerry Cole said, “At the end of the day its going to be a good thing for the safety of the tracks.”
Councilor Nelson described the project as the, “first financially viable option,” he’d seen for improving the rail corridor.
Utility Rate Proposals
City Administrator Debra Dudley noted that utility rate changes recommended by a citizens’ committee last year had not been instituted by the council and that the controversial equivalent dwelling unit program was still in affect.
Several proposals had been produced by the committee. Dudley was asked to present an option estimated to maintain the current across-the-board revenue, although the rates for some businesses would increase, while other decreased.
The council also asked Dudley to look at a septic sludge dumping increase to offset increased wear on the sewage plant.
Nelson suggested increased revenues from sludge be used to pay down debt on the existing plant.
Music Festival Scheduled
Susan Roberts of the Countrystock Music Festival requested permission to use the city park Sept. 6-7. Dudley was authorized to arrange the details.
Mayor Cole noted that the concert promoters had done a good job with clean up at the first event.
City Works Projects
City works director Jim Dahlquist reported on progress surveying needed street repairs and prioritizing work. The city budgeted $100,000 for repairs this budget year.
Councilor Nelson requested that this amount be increased, calling the work something people would notice immediately.
Dahlquist is working on energy efficiency improvements to the city’s water intake pumps.
He estimated that repairs to water damage at the senior center are about 90 percent completed. He noted the high quality work and proactive measures taken by contractor Lonnie Richards.
It was announced that the senior center would hold its 10th anniversary in March.
Rainier Police Chief Gregg Griffith reported that he attended a jail closure meeting in Clatskanie on Jan. 29. He said, “I don’t know if any problems were solved.” He is looking into options for the city.
Citizen support is being sought for a jail operating levy on the May ballot.
The council approved an employment agreement to Dudley which provides an annual salary of $81,456. The agreement stipulates bi-annual reviews and adjustments of roles and responsibilities. Dudley works as the city administrator, clerk and finance director.
“Random Acts of Kindness Week” has been declared in Clatskanie, with businesses, schools, organizations and individuals encouraged to “do something nice for someone” next week, Feb. 10-16.
Coinciding with Valentine’s Day, “Random Acts of Kindness Week” has been endorsed by the Clatskanie Chamber of Commerce, Kiwanis Club of Clatskanie, City of Clatskanie, Clatskanie School District, Boy Scout Troop #241, Turning Point Community Center, and several local churches, which are all encouraging their members to practice unsolicited acts of kindness not only next week, but throughout the year.
Sterling Bank, whose Clatskanie branch manager Monica Hastings brought the idea to the community, will be serving goodies all week in the lobby, along with a drawing for a gift basket, giving away coffees and fortune cookies at local coffee shops, and gifts and prizes at the Clatskanie High School basketball game Feb. 13.
Discounts & Deals will be randomly giving extra gift items with purchases next week.
Flowers ‘n Fluff will sell any type of 16 ounce drink for $2 on Wednesday, Feb. 12.
Wauna Federal Credit Union’s Clatskanie branch will give kids 12 and under a “treasure” from the Wauna Treasure Chest when they come in and deposit $10 or more into a “Jump Start” savings account during the week.
Fultano’s Pizza Parlor, Chevron, Shell, Johnson Family Feed Store, Bundy’s, Latté Da are also all planning random acts, with other businesses also expected to surprise their customers with unanticipated kindnesses.
THE FUNDING SITUATION which will see the Columbia County Jail close by the end of this fiscal year (June 30) without additional revenues coming in was the topic of a town hall meeting held at the Port of St. Helens building (old Clatskanie Middle School) last Thursday, Jan. 23. The panel answering questions from the audience of about 50 concerned citizens were, pictured from left: Columbia City Mayor Cheryl Young, Clatskanie Mayor Diane Pohl, Columbia County Undersheriff Andy Moyer, Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson, Columbia County Commissioners Tony Hyde, Henry Heimuller and Earl Fisher. (See story on page 1 for more information.) Chief Photo by Deborah Steele Hazen