City "not declaring victory until it sees a check" in USDA appeal

March 14, 2012

Monday night's Hood River city council meeting ended in a win, a draw and a bit of a loss.

First, the win.

The city found out Friday that it had won its appeal against the USDA over funding to complete the water transmission line between its two reservoirs.

The USDA had previously revoked the approximately $6 million from the city late last year saying that the funds were to be returned after construction costs came in lower than expected. The city argued the funds should remain available to complete more work on the project.

City Attorney Dan Kearns said the city had been "caught up in the net" during the congressional fight over government spending last year, during which the USDA rolled back many outstanding funds.

"We have cut ourselves out of the net but we are not home free," he said.

The ruling came back in the city's favor, meaning the funding will be restored. However, the USDA maintains discretion on how the funds will be spent.

"We hope they find a way to exercise their abundant discretion under this rule and allow us to use the remaining funds for this purpose," Kearns said.

However Mayor Arthur Babitz was not taking any chances that would be the case.

He said that he reached out to the offices of senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden for support in making sure the funds were restored to the reservoir project.

"We are not going to be declaring victory until we see a check," said Babitz.

The draw portion came in the middle.

The fourth item on the meeting's work session agenda called for a discussion on an intergovernmental agreement with the county for building services.

Two and a half years ago the city contracted out with the Clair Company of Corvallis to handle its building services.

At the time it contracted with Clair, Francis said the city had looked at several options as a solution for a building services department which was not bringing in revenue at a sustainable pace. One option was to contract out the services to a private company; another was contracting services out to the county.

Francis said at the time the county was not interested in taking on more contracting duties so the city elected to contract out to the Clair Company.

However, Francis said that the county had offered to revisit the arrangement following a request from Francis to do so. His request followed complaints from several developers responsible for renovating historic buildings downtown, and letters from those developers supporting an agreement with the county, that they were not getting a necessary level of service from Clair.

"Having a building official three hours away in Corvallis is not the same as having one in town," said Francis.

Francis added he felt he had a good working relationship with Clair, but felt that the working relationship city staff had with the county would be even better.

At the meeting to testify were developer Steffen Lunding and Pasquale Barone as well as Allan Clair, president of the Clair Company.

"I believe we are running a good department here," Clair said. "I've been doing this a long time and I've never had a contract terminated."

Clair said he had heard complaints that part of the issue was that his company did not have a local presence, and said the company would be willing to arrange to have a building official in the city.

"Had I heard there is a perceived need to have a building official in the city in a chair eight hours a day we would have responded to that," Clair said. "We can respond to the request without having our contract terminated."

However, the developers present at the meeting said that was not enough.

"We need to have our department back in our town and in our county," Lunding said. "It would be very good for those of us who have these sorts of interests (in historical buildings). I don't always agree with Bob on everything but I agree with him on this."

Barone agreed and said he would prefer to keep the building department in town.

"The county ... these are people I work with and who know the town, people I respect as both inspectors and officials," Barone said. "Whatever money is being collected it would be nice to keep it local. The move to repatriate our building department is a good one."

"I didn't take this decision lightly; I listened to a lot of people in the building community," Francis added.

Throughout the criticism leveled at Clair Company, Allan Clair sat toward the back of the meeting chamber alongside building inspector Jess Birge.

As the council prepared to deliberate on whether to cancel the contract, Lunding pushed one final point.

"If you notice, the only person here defending Allan, is Allan," he said.

That got Birge out of his seat to Clair's defense.

"You said you could not get anybody local," Birge said. "But how many times have I been down there to answer your questions?"

"He has been great to work for, he has a great team in Corvallis," he added. "We don't need to end this contract this month; let's let him bring in a building official and see how things go."

The council agreed that contract does not need to be terminated immediately.

Babitz said he wanted to give Francis time to digest the decision and to get more specifics from the county on their proposal, including the possibility of having county officials attend the next city council meeting.

"It doesn't feel like implementing this tonight versus two weeks from now makes a big difference," councilman Jeff Nicol said. "I feel like we are rushing this; with all due respect to the folks who are here, it doesn't feel like this has been put out to public for transparency ... I would feel better if it was out in public for a few weeks."

In the end Francis was directed to go back and resume discussions with the county, Clair and the concerned developers on finding a solution to the issue - and to bring it back to the council in two weeks.

The loss portion of the meeting came at the very end, when the council came out of executive session to authorize real estate broker Greg Colt to lower the city's asking price on a property it has listed for sale after failing to secure a suitable offer.

The city is selling several properties to make up the funds from the city hall remodel.

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