County Commissioner David Itzen has announced his intent to run for reelection in May.
“Most of my friends are saying, ‘What?!’” he said with a laugh. “And this is a tough time, an extremely difficult time for the county. But I want to see this through. I had hopes we could resolve most of the issues in my first term, but obviously going to take a little longer than this.”
The seat is the only one open on the three-person board, and no one yet has filed paperwork to vie for it.
“I’m extremely grateful to have this job; it’s a tremendous challenge and you have to get it right,” Itzen said. “It’s an honor.”
The issue foremost on the commissioners’ agenda is the state of the county’s finances. The general fund is short $3.5 million since federal timber revenues ended last year, and the county faces either broad-reaching layoffs or a state intervention this spring.
Employees are nervous, and department heads are looking for leadership.
Itzen said he’s eager to offer it.
“My family’s lived here for generations; we have skin in the game,” he said. “Curry County ought to continue to be a great place for folks who want to live here.”
He added, “We can find a solution to this; it’ll just take more work.”
Itzen, 67, was elected as county commissioner in 2010, and in that time has been instrumental in various economic development startups — a pyrolysis plant north of Gold Beach, luring a pellet stove-manufacturer to Harbor, ensuring Internet redundancy gets completed, creating ReHome Oregon to help owners of manufactured homes and crafting the Healthy Forest Collaborative to get loggers back into the woods while creating a more fire-resilient forest.
He and the other commissioners with whom he currently works — Susan Brown and David Brock Smith — have been focusing their efforts on getting county coffers back in the black. Efforts have primarily focused on getting a property tax increase; two different options were posed to voters, but both were defeated.
“I strongly disagree that we do the same things over and over again and that’s the definition of insanity,” Itzen said of the tax measures. “I don’t think people see the conditions as they are.”
When he worked with Commissioners Bill Waddle and George Rhodes, Itzen fought to create the Citizens Committee to brainstorm ideas to solve the county’s fiscal crisis, was involved in getting the Kitchen Table project as an Oregon Solutions designation to determine what citizens knew about county operations, and has worked with the two current commissioners to reorganize county departments.
Many departments — mental health, community health, hospice and the animal shelter — and their employees were spun off into nonprofit organizations. Numerous discussions have been held to discuss public safety. It was also Itzen’s idea to create the county-sponsored charter committee to examine different forms of government.
“Whatever the voters want, we should do,” he said in regards to input for that change. “But before something is laid in front of them, it needs to be carefully crafted, not something composed in someone’s living room or at a meeting that’s not noticed.”
He is referring to Brown’s efforts to convene citizens interested in changing county government to a charter form, which includes a board of commissioners who set policy and an administrator who oversees daily operations — an issue about which the board is divided.
That division is another problem Itzen wants to address.
“I hope to create a more cohesive board,” he said. “A more positive working team, all pulling the same direction at least some of the time. There’s some work that needs to be done there.”
He said cohesiveness, better respect and decorum could lead to a more effective team in promoting causes.
Leaders of the Association of Oregon Counties have agreed to meet with Curry County commissioners to mediate discussion along those lines.
While Itzen feels he’s made progress toward his goals, there are more challenges on the way.
“I looked at some campaign brochures to see whether I’d kept my promises, and I feel pretty good about it,” Itzen said.
He wants to continue the work on economic development, but tweak it to include tourism. He wants to get more involved in emergency planning as it relates to forest fires and the coast’s inevitable earthquake and tsunami.
And on the immediate horizon, the board must figure out if it should — and then, how — to use its road funds, from which it has already taken $1.65 million to keep public safety afloat. County funds will be spent before the fiscal year is out, finance officials have repeatedly said. And a long-term, permanent solution is still no closer in sight.
“I think the past board has made the correct choices, and we need to ensure we play a role in a positive solution to this funding problem,” Itzen said. “I believe that will happen.”
He would like to hold an in-depth financial workshop to again address the details of the budget. “We have that $1 million in SRS funds coming in and some savings,” he said. “I’d like to see how far we can go operating at this minimal level as long as we can. But we need more time. I agree with Susan: The more time we can spend with our fellow citizens about these circumstances, the better opportunities we’ll have to find a solution.”
But department heads — notably those in finance and public safety — have been warning for months that the county is out of time.
“That’s the impression I have, too,” Itzen said. “I want to go through the financial facts one more time. Pin things down a little more closely. It’s been a couple months since our last workshop.”
He remains optimistic.
“It’s a big decision to run, because it’s a contract between yourself and the folks who vote you in,” he said. “You’re obligated and expected to work for another four years. I look forward to it. This three years has gone fast; we’ve made a lot of changes, and I’m pretty pleased about the progress we’ve made, but there’s a lot more to do.”