Committee recommends salary increases
By Jennifer Jenks
The Malheur National Forest is doing what it can to try to help keep the lumber mill from closing in Grant County. That was what Emigrant Creek District Ranger Doug Jones told the county court at their meeting Sept. 5.
Judge Steve Grasty had asked Jones at a previous meeting what the forest service might be able to do to increase forest capacity if Harney and Grant counties both put their Title II funding on the table, which comes to about $1 million per year. Grasty noted it was pure conjecture as he certainly couldn’t speak for either county’s Title II funding, but was trying to look for a solution to the problem.
Jones stated he had looked into it and was hopeful that the forest service would be able to analyze double the amount of timber that they have in the past. “If we do more work, we can help industry as a whole,” Jones said. “That’s one of our goals.” Jones noted he would continue to work toward this goal and that the forest did have a 25-30 million board foot project that they were going to be stepping up to get ready for next year, earlier than it was scheduled.
Jones updated the court on the Parish Cabin fire, noting some parts are very black, but areas that were previously thinned are more spotty and “not as bad as you might think.”
A firefighter was injured on the fire after a log rolled on him and was transferred from John Day to Oregon Health and Sciences University last week, where his ankle will be operated on. There were no other injuries reported, one structure was reported destroyed (alleged to be the historic but falling down Parish Cabin itself, but unconfirmed) and a camp trailer as well as some tent sites were burned.
Jones expressed concern for recreators and hunters spending time in the forest this fall, as everything has been so much drier this year than it has been in a long time and there were predictions for warmer temperatures and lower precipitation than normal throughout September. “It’s not a good time to take chances,” Jones warned. He urged everyone to be especially careful with campfires.
The recommendations from the County Compensation Committee and subsequent salary increase for elected officials and county employees approved at the last meeting were questioned by concerned citizens in attendance. The committee; made up of Sharon Davis, business manager for ACW Inc. and Rattlesnake Land and Cattle, Joyce Moser, associated vice president of the Bank of Eastern Oregon, and Fred Flippence, finance director for Harney Electric; compared compensation for elected officials in Harney County with “those counties whose population and economics are similar to Harney County.” They also considered wages for equivalent private sector jobs. The committee recommended a 5 percent increase per year for all elected officials for the next four years (except the sheriff, who would receive 2 percent a year for the next four years), and recommended the county commissioner positions be increased from one-third time to half time with the pay to be 50 percent of the judge’s salary.
The court approved the wage and time increases, but only for this year, allowing the salary to be re-evaluated with the same process next year. Grasty noted he had also made a couple of calls comparing county employee salaries with those in the private sector and found they were below average as well, so the court approved a 5 percent increase for all county employees across the board, except those who already had wage increases written into their contracts.
Grasty said that only Wallowa County is below Harney County in compensation, and added that most counties pay the PERS cost for the employees, whereas in Harney County, that comes out of the employees’ checks. “I’m pretty proud of how conservative we’ve been,” Grasty said, “at the same time, we only had three applicants for shop foreman. I was blown away.” He said it was a difficult decision to make and should have been done during the budget process, but they were caught off guard when they realized they were supposed to be having a compensation analysis done annually and had not been doing that.
Tom Davis, with the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) was in attendance to update the court on ODOT’s new process to determine project funding. Davis stated from now on, instead of being allotted for different types of projects, all ODOT funding would be thrown into a big pot with the only categories being “enhancement” and “fix-it.” He gave the court, as well as Burns City Manager Don Munkers and Hines Secretary Ramon Hoffman, who were also in attendance, advice on how to use the new grant process and what types of projects were most likely to get funding.
Judge Grasty expressed concern that the decisions should be based on need and not on population. Davis urged all in attendance to stay actively involved in the funding process, as it was all new and they need to make sure they are prepared and organized if they’re going to get the funding they need.
“With a big pot, what are the guarantees that rural areas are going to get any money?” Commissioner Pete Runnels asked. “That’s what concerns me.”
In other business, the court:
• approved an approach off the north end of Fairgrounds Lane for Russel Higgins. A cell phone tower is being built on Higgins’ property and there is a county road there that Higgins has been using to access his property for years. With concerns about damaging sewer lines in the area by digging, as well as having two accesses directly adjacent to each other, the court agreed to the approach;
• reviewed a disaster declaration by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, which makes low-interest loans available to eligible landowners in Harney County. Judge Grasty noted his concern with that was that he didn’t know of any producers who were looking for loans;
• reviewed the library’s “Ready to Read” grant application, which Judge Grasty noted is the library’s only source of funding outside of the county;
The next Harney County Court meeting will be held Wednesday, September 19, at 10 a.m. in Judge Grasty’s office at the Harney County Courthouse, 420 N. Buena Vista Ave. in Burns.