Candidates weigh in at livestreamed forum
All three candidates for the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners sat at a table at Crooked River Ranch on Wednesday, April 29, for a forum held by the Madras-Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce.
The commissioners weighed in on questions submitted in advance, and Chamber Executive Director Joe Krenowicz changed the format midway through after feedback from the audience livestreaming the event.
The questions ranged from a proposed destination resort at the Cove Palisades Park to getting more people involved to saving money at the county jail, and at first, each candidate was given a different question. When 14 audience members said all three candidates — Kenny Bicart, Kim Schmith and Wayne Fording — should answer the same questions, Krenowicz obliged.
Bicart and Schmith are both seeking to unseat Fording. All three will appear on the May primary ballot for the nonpartisan position. If one gets more than 50% of the vote, the race will be over. If not, the top two vote-getters will move onto the November general election.
When asked about their top concern for the county and what they would do about it, Bicart looked to agriculture.
"Water here for the farms, the irrigation water," he said. "What can we do as county commissioner? Probably nothing because a lot of that is the state."
He said commissioners can lobby the state and bring issues to the attention of the public.
He said this year's lack of water allotments will bankrupt some farms, with farmers getting only half the usual water but paying the full price.
And regulations for water for spotted frog habitat are increasing, he said.
"That's the kind of thing we're in trouble about here, and frankly, we don't have a lot of say about it."
Fording and Schmith both said economic recovery is their top concern.
"Get through the COVID, get our businesses back and running," Fording said.
As far as water goes, he said commissioners might be able to work with the federal government on infrastructure.
"If we had more water, we could grow more things," he said. And he would like to see if water could be captured below spotted frog habitat on the Deschutes River, since flows are required.
"Because agriculture is the backbone of our community," he said.
"Definitely it's economic recovery," Schmith said. "No. 1, how do we access outside resources? ... I look at farms, I look at tourism, I look at the businesses small and large in our community."
She said she would find out what they need so resources can be pooled.
"This is going to take all of us to recover," she said.
One community member asked, "How do you see yourself bringing more and a variety of people and groups into the commission's work?"
"We definitely do have the Budget Committee, the Planning Commission," Fording said. The Public Health Department is working with the 509-J School District to form a Youth Advisory Council and has funded a teen health liaison.
"When there's a controversy, we fill the room," Fording said, but otherwise, people don't participate as much.
He said the Fair Board has collaborated well with the Livestock Association, 4-H and FFA.
"There's lots of ways to get out there, and we sure encourage it," he said.
Schmith said the commissioners should open up communication.
"I think the No. 1 thing is we need to always be bringing people in and have a variety of organizations and collaborators," she said.
She said communicating better with a variety of people would show where the holes are. She would look for that, "and then I would find out what's missing," she said.
She said in working with 18- to 30-year-olds, she has found that "they feel like there's no place."
She said people need to be invited to participate, and the county needs to invest time and education.
"That's where you're going to get full involvement throughout the community," she said.
Bicart mentioned the variety of events in the community.
"You know, there's a lot of things that goes on in our county that involves a lot of people," he said.
He referenced the fair, Latino Fest, the air museum and the community play.
"And then one that's really close to me is the Air Time Music Festival. We're trying to get kids in there," he said. "The said that music is the healer of the soul, and I believe that with all my heart. We need to get out and support these things."
One questioner asked if the county should be encouraging building and development and whether it should reestablish the economic development manager position for the traded sector. That position was cut when EDCO abruptly closed its county office and consolidated services in Bend last fall.
Bicart said the county can encourage development and work with the city of Madras. He said systems development charges and other fees discourage builders, and many people are leaving the state.
"We have a real hangup there," he said. "As far as livability, I don't know any place in the United States that would be nicer to live than Central Oregon."
He said while county fees aren't exorbitant, the zoning would be prohibitive to many businesses.
He also said when he was young, the county had men's and women's stores, but now people won't support local businesses.
"We've got some work to do with the city in regards to this issue," he said.
Fording said, "Definitely, we want to get our economic development program up and running again."
He said the county used lottery funds for the program, and a lot of people supported it and still do.
"That economic development group is looking at a reset, and hopefully we can get that going again."
In the county, there isn't much industrial land, Fording said. Earlier this year, the county offered a grant program, but it failed to attract interest.
He said part of the problem is that when people want to build a business, they don't want to go through two years of building; they want to lease something existing.
Schmith said she was "deeply disappointed" with the loss of the county's EDCO position.
She said former manager Janet Brown was able to bring people together and work with all the communities in the county.
"And this has hurt us," Schmith said. "And while I do want to see us develop, I want to see us have a smart plan."
Schmith said she is concerned about solar farms. While she isn't opposed to them, she is opposed to their being built on farmland. She'd rather see specific zoning for them.
She also said nobody in Jefferson County wants to become Bend.
"That means we have to think about what we want," make a plan and go after it, she said.
One person asked how the candidates would seek to improve the county's economic health, as well as what the key to economic development in the rural areas of the county is, and what the county should do to generate more revenue.
"I think the biggest thing we can do is support our agriculture community," Fording said.
As far as other opportunities, "if we're zoned farm or rangeland, with Oregon land use laws, it's tough to change those regulations," he said, adding that the county needs to work with North Unit Irrigation District and farmers to make sure they are getting the water they need.
Schmith said agriculture and small business are both important.
"Just like we've had to think outside the box to stay healthy in the last couple months, there are so many people working from home that are right now talking about that this is going to change the workforce in the United States."
She said if the county has strong internet and telephone service, people will be able to work from Jefferson County when they couldn't before. And that means they'll shop and do more locally.
She also said the commission needs to recognize that each community has different needs and should ask.
Bicart said Fording and Schmith had put it well.
"To get people here to work and live and not tax everybody out, that's one thing," he said, adding that it may take years for the economy to recover.
"We've got to keep on going," he said. "There's no such thing as neutral. We're either going forward or reverse, and so we all make do with what we have and continue."
The final question was whether the county could save money at the jail, given that there are fewer than 30 inmates.
Schmith said that last year, with Sheriff Jim Adkins, "It was brought up, 'Can you give us firmer numbers? Can you talk to us about how we can decrease expenses when we're losing Crook County?' And the answer was kind of a no," she said. "And I have to admit I don't completely understand that.
"We always have to be safe," she said. That means correctional officers and prisoners.
She said an outside consultant might be able to find savings while maintaining safety.
Bicart said he needed to study the issue more.
"The fixed costs go on," he said. There are still the same number of cooks and people answering phones.
"As I understand it, and I could be wrong on this, it's hard to cut back," he said, partly because of labor laws.
"That I'd like to look into," he said. "All the rest of us have to cut back."
Fording said he had talked with the sheriff and thought not much could be done at this point.
"He is concerned," Fording said. "There's a lot of factors in the jail that you can't change."
Insurance drop coverage on inmates, Fording said, so health care costs go up.
"It'd be nice to see some legislation that addressed that," he said. "The other thing is just personnel costs with PERS and everything. It's just the tiger in the room."
He said the commissioners have talked about researching cost savings, however, and said Schmith's point was interesting.
To watch the whole forum, go to the Madras-Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce's Facebook page.
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