With the start of the new year, Mike Oates officially begins his term as Chair of the Hood River County Board of Commissioners.
Oates, a 65-year-old orchardist in Odell, announced that he was filing for the position after incumbent chair and fellow orchardist Ron Rivers announced he wouldn’t be running for reelection early last year.
While Oates was officially elected in November, the bulk of his campaigning was done for the May primary elections, since Hood River County’s election policy dictates that candidates who get over 50 percent of the vote in the primary election run unchallenged in the general election.
In the May primary, he received 67.12 percent of the vote with a 42.73 percent voter turnout. His opponent, Commissioner Rich McBride, received 32.5 percent of the vote.
“I appreciated Rich (McBride) … (he) was a good candidate and made me work,” Oates said.
When asked about the campaign process, he said, “I’ve never had to campaign before, so it was different for me. It was a good experience, I got to talk to a lot of different people … Took a little getting used to, going around and knocking on doors. I’ve never done that before.”
Though his term didn’t officially start until Jan. 1, Oates was sworn into office on Dec. 17, alongside Commissioners Karen Joplin and Bob Benton.
Oates admitted that, prior to the election, he had little knowledge of the issues currently facing the county. “It’s been it’s been interesting to be sitting on the sidelines, watching what’s going on,” he said.
“Once I got into the real process of trying to learn everything that’s going on in the county, it became pretty evident real quick that the major problem was the finances. We have some real problems right now and we need to get that straightened out, so everything else had to take a backseat,” he said. “So that’s where most of my time and energy have gone into, is understanding how we got where we are and how we’re going to get out of it, because if we don’t get that solved, a lot of these other things that we need to be doing aren’t going to get accomplished because we don’t have the finances to do a lot of them.”
Hood River County has been facing budget problems for a long time and, since 2006, it has had to pull over $7 million out of its Reserve Fund to balance each year’s budget, despite significant cuts.
The county’s General Fund budget for the 2018/19 fiscal year is approximately $12.8 million and its expected revenue is $11.2 million — $1.6 million short.
Oates acknowledged that the county has done a lot of work looking for solutions to the budget problem and said, “It’s not like they haven’t been trying things — they’ve tried several different things, they were trying to get revenue that would come and help the county without having to put it on the backs of the taxpayers …and nothing ever panned out, so from there, we had to come up with some kind of taxing process.”
The county recently held two budget workshops — one in late October and a second in early November — to educate the public on the complicated budget issue, answer questions and give residents a chance to provide input on potential solutions. After going over input received at these workshops, the commission decided to pursue two revenue options: A prepared food and beverage tax, and a local option operating levy.
“The reason … we’re looking at that (Prepared Food and Beverage Tax) is it’s one option where we can start getting some money back from the tourist industry that’s putting so much pressure on our infrastructure,” Oates said.
“Part of our problem is that there’s been such a huge increase in our tourist industry and we don’t have any sales tax, so we need a system where we can get some of the funding from them to help pay for the pressure that they put on.”
Regarding the proposed operating levy, he said, “they (the commissioners) didn’t want to put everything on the backs of … the people who pay property taxes, because every time you do that, it increases the cost of living in Hood River and we all know the cost of living is already too high; but that being said, we can’t do it all off of the Food and Beverage (tax), either.”
He added that one of the benefits of the local option levy is that it has to be renewed every three to five years, based on the rate the county decides to pursue, “so they (the community) have some regulation and can make sure we’re doing our job.”
He said that most of the other issues that the county is dealing with, such as the Westside Area Concept Plan and proposed changes to Short Term Rental regulations, are dependent on the county’s finances.
Having spent most of his life working as an orchardist in Odell, Oates said that he is excited to work on the Odell plan. “I have some pretty good ideas on areas that could be changed in their zoning without adversely affecting any of the farms that are currently around — and I am one of the farmers right around Odell, I have been for 30 years, so I kind of know how that works,” he said, “but again, that’s going to take time and money too so we’ve got to get the budget fixed.”
Oates’ term as County Chair started on Jan. 1, with his first work session scheduled for Jan. 7.
“I’m trying to back off a little bit of how much of the actual hands-on farming I’m doing. It’s hard to sit on a tractor and do a meeting at the same time,” he said, “but it’s about time; my son and son-in-law are farming with me and they can take over more as we move along, so it forces me to quit doing so much farming, which is probably a good thing.”