The new year is a chance for a fresh start. But in Umatilla and Morrow counties, local leaders aren’t as focused on wiping the slate clean as they are building off the momentum of previous successes.
Coming of his first year in office, Umatilla County Commissioner John Shafer was most proud of contracting management of the county’s vehicle fleet to Enterprise Fleet Management and making progress on the Central Line Ordnance project.
The Central Line Ordnance project, which is the final pipeline of three that will pump Columbia River water into the region, is especially important, according to Shafer, because it will recharge the basin’s depleted aquifer. While Shafer was pleased with the county taking the lead on the project in 2019, he’s aiming for more this year.
“I’d love to see pipe in the ground in 2020,” he said.
Shafer said the county has recently applied for a $7 million federal grant that they’ll hear back on by the end of January or start of February that could move the project into its next steps.
Fellow Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock said his primary duty in 2020 will be maintaining stability of the county’s budget and finances while he also takes on a unique role locally and nationally with the 2020 Census.
In October, Murdock was one of six county commissioners in the nation to be selected to serve on the census working group for the National Association of Counties. According to Murdock, public entities receive roughly $4,000 per citizen, making the census and its accuracy this year a matter of finances for Umatilla County.
Other focuses for Murdock in 2020 include helping the East Umatilla County Fire District secure funding for a new fire station and continuing the expansion of the county’s road deputy workforce, which Murdock said has grown from staffing seven deputies to 17 in the last five or six years.
In Morrow County, commissioner and chair Jim Doherty touted his successful negotiations in 2019 with NextEra Energy to bring the nation’s first large-scale energy facility that combines wind, solar and battery power to the region, and pointed to consolidation of the county’s facilities as a goal for 2020.
In 2019, Doherty and Murdock were elected to terms as the first president and second vice president, respectively, of the Association of Oregon Counties. In their new roles, both commissioners will be making frequent trips to Salem to meet with state legislators on the region’s behalf.
“We repeatedly hear about the urban and rural divide,” Murdock said. “And it’s often an uphill battle making sure our thoughts and interests are represented on this side of the state. I think we need to be much more aggressive in pursuing the agenda and interests of the region.”
Doherty highlighted that the two commissioners' roles allow for them to better connect with and understand the challenges facing the rest of the state, and vice-versa.
“I’m much more of a bridge builder than a politician,” he said.
While counties will be lobbying for their interests in Salem, state Sen. Bill Hansell (R-Athena) is preparing for a relatively quiet 2020 legislative session, with just one piece of legislation he’s pushing.
Hansell said he hopes to pass a bill to allocate funding for a coordinator to take on water projects in the north of Umatilla and Morrow counties while continuing to be an advocate for the region in the state’s natural resource economy.
Education throughout Oregon got a boost from the 2019 legislative session with the passage of the Student Success Act, which promises to invest $1 billion per year into the state’s early learning and K-12 systems.
For Mark Mulvihill, the superintendent for the InterMountain Education Service District, going into the new year with the opportunity to add funds and expand services to this magnitude is something he’s never experienced.
“These next three months are going to be very, very critical to develop our plan for using those extra funds,” he said.
Over that time, Mulvihill said IMESD and the 18 school districts it serves will use a variety of methods to collect input from the public in developing a plan for how Student Success Act funding will be utilized in the region. That plan is due on April 15, Mulvihill said, and then will be reviewed by the Oregon Department of Education for final tweaks and approval.
Then, Mulvihill explained, each school district will be able to figure out how each individually will spend the money it’s allotted.
At its root, the funding is meant to provide greater equity within the state’s education system. Towards those ends in Eastern Oregon, Mulvihill said there’s four groups that have been identified as “traditionally underserved” in the region: students who are poor, students who have special needs, indigenous populations and second-language learners.
Mulvihill said IMESD is also aiming to improve its training and retention of teachers along with interrogating its own place in furthering Student Success Act’s purpose.
“Taking a closer look at equity within our own culture goes hand-in-hand with that funding,” he said.
Along with the state funding to bolster it this year, early learning and preschool education won in Oregon with a $26.6 million federal grant that was awarded in December, and like IMESD, Umatilla-Morrow County HeadStart will be working within its communities to figure out how to put it to use.
“We’re working together with early learning hubs and coming together to see where those holes and gaps are,” executive director Maureen McGrath said.
While HeadStart will be hoping to expand capacity in early learning facilities for communities who want it and providing more resources to educate parents, McGrath said they are committed to leveraging momentum to secure even more funding in 2020.
As it awaits the eventual influx of state funding, the Hermiston School District is wrapping up its request for proposal process of an architectural service to join projects made possible by the 2019 voter-approved school bond on Jan. 7, and anticipates to have a contractor selected by the end of that month.
“We will break ground in 2020,” said superintendent Tricia Mooney.
The projects will include a replacement of long-standing Rocky Heights Elementary School and a new elementary school on Theater Lane, but Mooney is unsure when construction will begin.
In addition to hopeful improvements of the region’s school districts, improvements to infrastructure and expanding commercial business potential are on the minds of its cities.
In Hermiston, assistant city manager Mark Morgan said the city is turning its focus in the new year towards the continuation of the water tower project in the northeast area of the city.
“It looks like it’s done,” he said. “But the overall project itself includes running the piping, installing motors and such.”
Morgan added that the project — jointly funded between the city and the county— will contribute to the addition of an anticipated 900 housing units across Hermiston over time.
In addition to the water tower, the city is continuing to set its sights on the South Hermiston Industrial Park project behind the former Hermiston Foods plant, which will increase the amount of land usable for smaller industrial businesses.
“We’ve been slowly gobbling up the lighter industrial land,” Morgan said.
He referred to the move to create smaller parcels of industrial land as “economic gardening.”
The city anticipates receiving funding from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to bolster the project this coming year and break ground towards the end of 2020.
“We’re still going to be doing all of our regular road maintenance; we’re not going to be doing as many big projects people have noticed this year,” Morgan added.
From the census and Student Success Act to fixing roads and implementing police body cameras, leaders in Eastern Oregon will be busy in 2020. But most, like commissioner Doherty, are ready to get to work.
“I’m very excited,” he said. “It’s going to be a whirlwind.”