By Karen Hutchinson-Talaski
HERMISTON Morrow County Courts are unwilling to take responsibility for cuts to the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program (CSEPP), despite the fact cuts may need to be made if the Federal Emergency Management Agency is unable to fund the remainder of CSEPP's budget of 12.9 million dollars.
Morrow County Commissioner Ray Grace presented a letter to the Citizen's Advisory Commission last Thursday night which advised the CAC the court could not, in good conscience, take the safety of the citizenry in Morrow and Umatilla counties lightly.
The letter, signed by Grace, Morrow County Commissioner John Wenholz and Morrow County Judge Terry Tallman, states the current funding from FEMA of $5.6 million does not cover projects like the Hermiston Evacuation Plan and other key projects.
The $5.6 million given by FEMA covers the basic operating costs necessary to keep the Umatilla program in operation for the coming year, says Grace.
Grace and the other Morrow County commissioners are concerned about the safety of the citizens of the Umatilla community, says Grace. They are concerned that without full funding, residents of Umatilla and Morrow counties who are affected by the Umatilla Chemical Agent Disposal Facility incineration process will be left without adequate safety measures.
"People have worked hard on this for so many years," Grace said, "In case of an incident at the depot, Morrow County Courts want to go on record that they have done their due diligence for the citizens in the Umatilla community."
Grace says there is a lot of pressure being put on Morrow County by numerous sources; but none coming from Umatilla County.
"I don't want this to become a county versus county issue," Grace said, "I just want to be sure all CSEPP projects are fully funded."
Grace says that the extra $7.9 million CSEPP is asking for is not a lot of money; especially in light of public safety.
According to Barry Anderson, FEMA Region 10 CSEPP program manager, FEMA is doing everything it can to find the money to fully fund the valid point projects.
"We aren't asking the communities to sacrifice citizen safety," Anderson said. "We just want them to think about prioritization."
Anderson says that prioritization is important in case full funding is not available. Although Anderson is optimistic about finding funding for all the CSEPP projects, finding $12.9 million to fund everything will not be easy.
The toughest sell will be the Hermiston Evacuation Plan, says Anderson.
"A lot of time and effort was put into Shelter In Place," Anderson said, "The evacuation plan has suddenly emerged as critical. It is going to be a tough sell."
The evacuation plan, which widens Highway 395 and other streets in Hermiston, coming to the forefront means more money, a little over $3.5 million for Phase I and II, added to the budget.
Meg Capps, CSEPP program manager for Umatilla County, says Umatilla County has received nothing but support from FEMA for Umatilla County's budget items.
"FEMA will not let us fail," Capps said.
Capps says her office has asked for projects that are supported by local citizens, clearly needed and well justified in the eyes of FEMA officials. That is not to say that the evacuation plan is not needed, Capps said.
Umatilla County believes, says Capps, that CSEPP should give first priority to maintaining existing projects; public warning systems, overpressurization facilities, decontamination capabilities, first responder protective equipment and any other projects already in place.
The current 2004 budget allows CSEPP to maintain existing projects while implementing a few additional projects, says Capps.
In a meeting Thursday, the Oregon Health Division, Oregon Emergency Management CSEPP, and Morrow and Umatilla county CSEPP managers got together to at least prioritize the $5.6 million FEMA has for projects right now.
Capps said that Umatilla County CSEPP received $1.67 million to fund operating expenses out of the $5.6 million FEMA has; which include tone alert radio distribution, postage, rent, travel, and other items needed to maintain their program; fund maintenance of the 450 MHz radios, ongoing engineer and architecture projects, assisted management and busses for Echo schools.
"I am confident the rest of our projects will be funded," Capps said.
However, Capps takes exception to some of Morrow County's letter. She says the "extensive local prioritization process" that Grace says took place didn't happen that way.
"We voted 3 - 1 to not prioritize as a community," Capps said, "It was done in individual agencies."
Capps isn't the only one to take exception to the letter to the CAC. Umatilla County Commissioner Dennis Doherty feels the CAC is not the avenue to raise these issues.
"The main function of the CAC is to serve as a conduit between citizenry and (the) Army," Doherty said in a written statement, "It is a little more direct conduit than the others which are also available."
Doherty says because the CAC get the press coverage that it does, CAC meetings get used for staging, promoting and news-making purposes.
"So, it is another venue for Morrow County to get its message out and seek to broaden its support base," Doherty wrote, "I'm sure that Morrow County wants the CAC to carry the Morrow County message to the Army."
The message from Morrow County, says Doherty, is consistent with what Morrow County's message has been: the federal government and the Army should fund the entire $12.9 million budget, not just the $5.6 million already budgeted; locals should not have to prioritize any part of the $7.9 million difference; Morrow County equates full funding with safety and believes the Army should not be allowed to begin "incineration unless/until the full $12.95 million is delivered."
Doherty feels that it is irresponsible to imply that others are gambling the safety of the citizens.
Capps agrees. She said that even with new projects being proposed, some projects are "nice-to-have" as opposed to "need-to-have". Capps also said CSEPP is similar to many programs (local, state, and federal) that have growing budgets with a set amount of dollars.
"Umatilla County believes in being fiscally responsible," Capps said. "We want to insure we are using the limited CSEPP funds in the wisest way possible."