Fording, Schmith face off
Jefferson County Board of Commission candidates Wayne Fording and Kim Schmith took questions on everything from COVID to affordable housing to partisanship Wednesday, Oct. 14, in a forum put on by the Madras-Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce.
The questions were submitted by people in the community — as well as a few during the event on Facebook Live. The candidates were given most of the questions earlier that morning to prepare. Chamber Executive Director Joe Krenowicz said he thought that was important and didn't want to have a "gotcha" event. He did the same for the Madras City Council forum the week before, he said.
Both candidates praised each other's hard work during the campaign and pointed out areas where they agreed.
Schmith said her top two issues would be COVID recovery and high-speed broadband.
She said the community needs input to determine how federal money will be spent to help businesses recover from COVID-19.
And she wants to see high-speed internet service throughout the county, especially in areas with poor or no service.
That would allow people to work and study from home, she said.
Fording said that while there are more than two issues facing the county, his top priorities would be water for farms and safer roads.
"Fifty percent of our ground wasn't irrigated and farmed like it should, so that is very concerning for me," Fording said.
"We've got issues out on the highway, we all know that," he said. "It's just not safe out there."
He said the county needs improvements at intersections and to make tough decisions about access to the highway.
"What kind of industry should we be recruiting, high property tax value or high number of employees?" Krenowicz asked.
Fording said jobs were more important.
"As far as recruitment goes, most companies kind of find you, you know," he said.
He added that he would like to bring EDCO back to the county and look at opportunities for tourism.
"We've got some of the cleanest air and environment around," he said. That would help build businesses and economics in the county as well, he said.
Schmith's approach would be different, she said.
"In a perfect world, we should go after both," she said. "I disagree as far as waiting to see who comes by."
She said the county might need to defer taxes on industry that would provide a high property tax value. Those with more employees should get different incentives.
"... having people locally employed is a really big deal," she said. "Can we ask them to work as hard as possible to get local people employed?"
She added that areas in Culver and Metolius also have opportunities for industry, though Madras often gets talked about the most.
When asked what the county could do to assist in creating affordable housing, Fording said that while buying a lot outside the cities in the county is expensive, it "makes more than perfect sense" for the county to work with its cities.
As far as reducing fees goes, Fording said most are set by the state. In the past, the county has waived fees and then reimbursed the Community Development Department for them.
"Yes, I think there's ways that could be done on some of those projects," he said. "That's when we get our best bang for our buck when we collaborate."
He said Housing Works' project in Madras is nice to see, and the county has partnered with the city in the past.
Schmith explained Madras' housing action plan, which included dropping fees for developers, and giving bigger incentive for middle-class and low-income housing.
"What they found is they had massive change," Schmith said, with more residential projects in the last two years than in the last five combined.
"That tells us if we reduce the fees, we may very well indeed see a boom in development," she said.
While fees fund the county, so does increasing the tax base, she said. The county would need to have a plan.
"Reducing fees is one option," she said. "Another big option is teamwork."
She said the Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council determined that housing is the top economic development problem in the region.
"You do not want to have a new larger business if there is no place for your workers to live," Schmith said.
Krenowicz asked the candidates what their priority would be in upgrading or replacing buildings at the county fairgrounds.
Schmith said she uses the fairgrounds throughout the year for Relay for Life, the fair and Operation Rudolph, among other events.
"People don't want to move the fairgrounds," she said.
The county needs a 10-year plan with a budget, she said.
"I'd like to see it not only fixed up, but we need to have it updated," she said.
She added that safety at the arena might be the first step, and priorities should be set by the community, the fair board and commissioners.
Fording touted the work the Board of Commissioners has already done.
"We've had a growing commitment to the fairgrounds," he said.
The board started meeting with the fair board and has been collaborating with 4-H, FFA and the Jefferson County Livestock Association, Fording said.
The pavilion, which was destroyed during a heavy snow, is almost complete. New bathrooms have been added, and new walking paths are being started. Work has also been done on hog wash stations and a new beef barn.
"There's a lot of good things going on there," he said, adding that next year the commissioners will look for more improvements.
When asked what the county can do to improve safety on its highways and other roads, Fording said an Oregon Department of Transportation representative had met with the Board of Commissioners that morning.
"There's going to have to be hard decisions made, and things are going to have to be prioritized," Fording said.
It may be that one road is closed off so the intersection at another can be fixed.
He said the county also needs to look at transportation safety for bikes and pedestrians.
Schmith said she also attended the meeting.
"As a county, we don't have any decisions that we can make about the highways themselves," she said.
The county can work with ODOT and can improve signage.
ODOT would like the county to close access to some roads from the highway, but many of them are farm roads, she said, and the community will have to make hard decisions.
ODOT said four lanes between Madras and Redmond aren't on the state's 20-year plan.
Schmith said she would like to see a conversation about what roads the community is willing to close or reroute. She would also encourage Public Works to increase signage and add vibration strips.
When asked about plans to help the community through the COVID-19 pandemic, Schmith said Public Health has been doing an outstanding job of educating the public rather than fining businesses.
"There's nothing easy about COVID," she said. "I think we all understand that."
She said she would continue to support the department and listen to its recommendations.
"My husband's 70, so this influences me," she said. "This reminds me of why it's so important to stay safe. I ask people to mask up."
She said that will help the county open sooner.
Fording said, "A lot of the issues associated with COVID seems to be definitely a result of communications."
He said the Board of Commissioners has worked with Public Health and has tried to dedicate additional funds to help local businesses. He said the county has followed every protocol and has worked with the governor's office, as well as to get off the watch list.
"That was a lot of people in this county doing what they had to do, being careful, wearing the masks," he said.
"What do you see as the key to economic development in rural areas of the county?" Krenowicz asked.
"Our rural county is already developed," Fording said. "It's called farm ground. I think we need to do everything in our power to rework this water situation."
He said state Sen. Lynn Findley and Rep. Daniel Bonham are discussing a pilot program. While the state can't change federal law, it can work on policy at the local level.
"Right now, if Kim wanted to give me a gallon of water from upstream, they don't allow that," he said.
He is hoping for more help at the federal level.
Schmith said economic development will look different in different parts of the county. Cities have industrial zones, and Warm Springs would like to see development on the highway.
Developing takes "huge and dynamic partnerships," she said.
"I'd like to see tourism," she said, "as well as filling those industrial parks with a variety of businesses."
When asked what role the county should play in economic development, Fording said he would like to see EDCO return to the county.
"Having that person there is important," he said.
He added that the county offered a grant for establishing a warehouse in the county but had no takers. It bought the old Grasslands building in Madras and will work with the city to move forward, he said.
Fording also wants to prioritize "preservation and enhancement of our existing economy, which is farming."
Schmith said, "The county has a very vital role in economic development."
The county needs to support its smaller communities, as well as "the chamber and other ambassadors that are going to help us bring that economic development," she said.
The county needs a plan and enticements for business.
"I like plans," she said. "I like to know what the rules are."
She said farming is important.
"I was really disappointed last year to hear about the County Commission developing an urban renewal district in the middle of our farmland."
She said she was glad she hadn't heard more about it because farmers don't need competition for the land.
Krenowicz asked what one area of county services the candidates would put money into if new resources were available.
"I think a good place to put some new resources would be an increased focus on prevention," Fording said.
The county is underrepresented in terms of healthcare and mental health providers, and it rates among the lowest in the state in terms of health, he said.
"There's a wide variety of impacts — health, economic stability for our county that poor health, mental health can bring us."
He said costs have skyrocketed by the time people get into the system.
He said he appreciated that Gov. Kate Brown did not use a line-item veto to cut funds for the county's health and wellness campus project as she did for other projects after Republicans walked out of the Legislature.
Schmith said she really liked Fording's answer.
She said assuming she couldn't fix the water problem, she also prioritized health.
She thought a windfall should be used as matching funds for high-speed internet.
"What we know is it's necessary for our education, for our kids," she said. She added that there are parts of the county that have connection, such as in Camp Sherman. And other places, including Ashwood and some parts of Warm Springs, still rely on dial-up internet.
"Will you commit to being nonpartisan in your role as commissioner?" Krenowicz asked.
Schmith said she was surprised how often she was asked that question.
"I'm a firm believer that we should serve all the people and that we should leave our party at the door, if you will," she said. She pointed out that while 34% of Jefferson County voters are Republicans and 21% are Democrats, 45% are unaffiliated or members of another party.
"As a county, we voted on this a while ago," she said. "I've been excited at how it's turned out. I believe that it's vital to having good relationships with everybody."
"You betcha," he said in answer to the question. "That's one thing I've tried to do. If somebody's got a problem, you want to listen to the problem, try to understand the problem and then work the solution."
He said the last thing on his mind is the person's party affiliation. He likes that he gets to live and work with his constituents.
Both candidates were asked if they had received contributions from a political party since the position is nonpartisan.
Fording said he received $500 from the local Republican Party. He encouraged people to look up the contribution information on the Secretary of State's website.
"I have no out-of-state contributions on my side," he said.
(Fording is by far his largest contributor, with cash and in-kind donations totaling $6,626. The Jefferson County Republican Party and Kurt Feigner are his second-highest individual donors at $500 each. Cash donations of $100 or less account for $925.)
Schmith said she was offered money from the Democratic Party and did not accept it.
She said she thinks she has two out-of-state donors. (That is correct, according to the Secretary of State's Office.)
"Both are Madras High School graduates," she said, and one is a family member.
The other was a former classmate who was excited that Schmith was running for office, she said, and asked how to contribute.
(Schmith is the largest donor to her campaign, with cash and in-kind donations totaling $17,153. Doug Buettner was her second-highest donor, with $500. Individual cash contributions of less than $100 totaled $2,095.)
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