Candidates weigh in on Port Westward urban renewal
The seven candidates running for two positions on the Columbia County Board of Commissioners — four for position 1 and three for position 3 — have shared their opinions about the county-led urban renewal program at Port Westward.
Each commissioner was asked: if they thought the urban renewal project had been effective and well-managed; if the program should be shut down as soon as the originally-planned projects are completed, or if additional projects should be added; and if the Columbia County Development Association should continue to push the Port of Columbia County to renegotiate payment agreements for the water system.
Position 1, Margaret Magruder: Magruder said the project has been effective, citing rail upgrades that are being "used regularly and paid for by the users;" road improvements between Highway 30 and the Port Westward site; the water system built in the district; and safety upgrades on Clatskanie Rural Fire District equipment. "It is always much easier to make decisions about actions after the fact, however, I think the decisions made through the URA have been good ones," Magruder wrote. "The water system has yet to attract new users, although the fault is not of the system but of the challenge of finding industry that is acceptable to the general population of Columbia County and to completing the rezone of Port property to Rural Industrial Planned Development to allow industry to site."
"I believe that the taxing districts who are impacted by this program need to have input" regarding when the district is closed or if additional projects are added, Magruder said.
The CCDA had planned a meeting with impacted taxing districts, but that meeting was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Magruder said the CCDA was still seeking input from the taxing districts.
"The presence of Covid-19 and the potential social and economic impacts may change the needs of the County and call for a new path to be pursued as relates to the URA. My position is that we need to make the (decision) that provides the greatest economic benefit to all the taxing districts."
"The CCDA is providing the affected taxing districts a detailed report of the options available to pay the loans and close the URA. I do believe a reimbursement agreement is in the best interest of the taxing districts, however, I look forward to hearing from the representatives of these districts as to the direction they feel will be of the most benefit to all parties before I make my final decision."
Position 1, Tricia Stockwell: "I'm not sure of the effectiveness of how it has been run, however, I am aware that the water system has been complete for the past seven years, with the exception of one final adjustment to get the rezone complete. … I support finishing the project and paying the loans off. It is my understanding that the County has (the) funds to do this. It would then end the tax line on property taxes within the County and relieve citizens from some minor taxation. Although it is small, it's still a tax on properties that we have the ability to finish."
Stockwell said the CCDA was right to ask the Port to use future water system payments to reimburse taxing districts.
"Preparing this property for future business was a good idea," but it was done at the taxpayers' expense and potential users all fell through, Stockwell said.
Now, the focus should be on finding businesses to use the water system.
"When that happens, they need to have in place to reimburse the taxing districts, something that they initially said would be done," she said.
Position 1, Brandee Dudzic: "We sunk a staggering amount of money into Port Westward to try to build it out and make it attractive to certain kinds of industries — millions and millions of dollars. I understand why, and what was hoped for. But what I would ask you to consider is how else might have Columbia County used that money? How many local businesses could have been enriched? Does anyone feel like those corporations are loyal to us? I don't. I think they settle into communities like ours, that offer them a dizzying array of incentives, and then when they run out, they leave," Dudzic said.
"If we can be brave enough to decide to turn away from the sunk costs at Port Westward, we can focus on small and medium local businesses here," and increase local jobs, support entrepreneurial young residents and improve the survival rate of local businesses, she said.
"My position is that we need to dissolve the CCDA as soon as possible and pay off the water loan. By doing so, we save taxpayers $2 million dollars. That said, I also think it is important that the county be able to recover any tariffs from potential water users in the future. Unless the County and the Port can find a way to agree on this, I am not sure how things can proceed."
Dudzic referenced a December 2019 Spotlight article which stated "The Port of Columbia County and Columbia County Development Agency are once again at odds over the intergovernmental agreement at Port Westward."
"Has there been a time that they were not at odds over this?" Dudzic asked. "As a constituent, that doesn't make me feel good. As a candidate, I feel further impressed upon that our commissioners allow for dysfunction for far too long," she added.
Dudzic said trying to find information about the CCDA was unacceptably difficult. At a January CCDA meeting, the commissioners called the meeting to order and quickly went into executive session, which meant Dudzic, as well as port representatives who were in attendance, were required to leave. After another CCDA meeting, Dudzic said she was not able to find minutes or a recording to fill in gaps in her notes.
"The county's website, in terms of meeting minutes for all the various meetings the county holds, is an informational desert. I will not allow that to be the case if elected," Dudzic said.
Position 1, Wayne Mayo: "The CCDA should be shut down and the taxpayers should be given relief," Mayo said. "The money to pay it off is there, it costs 60 grand a year to keep it going; shut it down."
Position 3, Alex Tardif: The urban renewal program "has served its purpose, and paid for or collected the funds necessary to meet the plan's goals. It is on track to pay off the projects about 10 years ahead of schedule," Tardif said.
"I believe it is time to shut it down. We need to achieve the best good for the community at this point (and) that is shutting the district down. This would save the taxpayers over $2 million dollars in interest and allow the taxes being diverted to the urban renewal district to flow back to the affected taxing districts. This move would help support operations for those districts that have forgone their taxes."
Tardif said he thought the "best collaborative approach" would be for the port to use future revenue from the water system to reimburse taxing districts. But, he said, the CCDA should not delay paying off loans in hopes of having a water system user come along before the loan is paid off.
"This district has been funded by taxpayers for 20 years under the premise that if we build it, industry will come. In roughly 20 years that has not happened. If the district pays off the debt now, it will save the tax payers $2 million dollars in interest. These funds will pay for services that are needed now, without a tax increase to our community."
Position 3, Casey Garrett: "My understanding is the infrastructure improvements proposed to create this urban renewal district are now complete, and the tax dollars diverted to fund those improvements can now pay off that loan, so in that sense, it has been effective," Garrett said. "I do not think urban renewal districts should be permanent, so (I) would want to be very careful in determining whether it makes any sense to modify its original scope. I would be inclined to pay off the loan to avoid unnecessary interest payments and close the project out."
In response to the question about the Port, Garrett said he could not find any record "that references a reimbursement to the taxing districts within this urban renewal district. If there is a legitimate reason to do so, then it should be presented to the public to evaluate."
Position 3, Jeanne Correll: "The type of bond that was issued nearly two decades ago spells out the options for repayment," Correll said. "I would recommend the County and Port Commissioners continue to review their options with their counsels (as they seem to be doing) and make a decision based on the legal agreements entered into, as well as how these plans have panned out, or not."
"I can understand why the county might not want to finish the debt payments and be done with it when the URA Plan has apparently not materialized as envisioned," Correll said, referencing the plan's original expectation that four major businesses would move into the area.
Correll acknowledged a number of economic downturns that have occurred since the urban renewal area was established nearly two decades ago.
"In light of these economic challenges, it's hard to know what to do now with this site, but I think the best path is to move forward. If the County has the money to pay off the debt, that should be done, so there is not even more interest to pay," Correll said.
"I believe agriculture and the development along the river can co-exist. I am hopeful NEXT Renewables will be able to continue with their proposed venture especially in these uncertain times. And the Port needs to make a concerted effort to attract additional businesses that were always an integral part of this plan. That's the key to making this URA, finally, a success."
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