The top three issues on citizens’ minds during a League of Women Voters forum Wednesday night were what new revenue can be brought to the county, how candidates propose make commissioner meetings more civil and productive and how fire recovery should be addressed.
Curry County commissioner candidates include Jan Barbas, Christopher Paasch, Jeri Lynn Thompson and Andre Bay, who wasn’t in attendance. They are vying for Seat 1, currently held by Commissioner Tom Huxley, who has opted not to run for a second term.
Also at the forum was Shannon Souza of Allegany, who is running against incumbent David Brock Smith for the District 1 state Senate seat. Smith couldn’t make the meeting due to legislative issues he was addressing in Salem.
Curry’s bottom line
Candidates were first asked how they intend to bring in revenue to Curry County’s general fund, which this year could be balanced by the unexpected resurrection of the Secure Rural Schools program, or could be up to $600,000 short if the board decides to provide certain departments with more operating money.
“We need to take several small steps,” said Barbas, who regularly attends commissioner meetings. “I pledge to lobby Salem to have counties get a piece of all new state revenue, loosen fee structures and change how new revenue is used and (implement) a transient lodging tax in the county.”
Paasch, who operates the Dream, Hope and Faith Foundation outside Gold Beach, agreed, saying the burden of county revenue needs to be shared among all.
“It doesn’t cost the citizens of Curry County,” he said. “Putting the burden on the people who own homes and businesses should not be solely on us. People who come here should have to help fund the county, as well.”
He believes a lodging tax is possible if presented correctly — and by a full-time commissioner “willing to sit in a chair and do the job.”
A sales tax could be put before the voters, as well. Barbas said it would take time for the state to put the mechanisms in place to collect one. Thompson nor Paasch would favor a sales tax, saying there are other ways to generate revenue and such a tax would make it even harder for many to get by.
Thompson, a Tolowa Indian tribe member who indicated several times she is “big on collaboration,” said she would lobby at the state and federal level to obtain money no one seeks.
County infrastructure, particularly the 56-year-old jail, needs to be addressed, as well; Paasch and Thompson agreed stakeholders need to discuss how to fund new facilities.
“The jail is a dungeon,” Barbas said. “It is not a place I’d even want to spend so much as an hour. And it’s a very, very risky design for guards. I don’t see funding for it, and I don’t have a solution, and I’m not hearing support for paying to build a new one.”
Paasch said the economic development department needs to be reinstated at the county level.
“It’s important for any vibrant county,” he said. “We need to bring good jobs back; we need to have reasons for kids to stay here. Without economic development, that’s not going to happen.”
He suggested trying to lure California businesses here, as Oregon has lower corporate taxes, home prices and utility costs.
“Economic development is my passion,” Thompson said. “I see opportunities to helping entrepreneurs create business with living-wage jobs.”
Chetco Bar Fire
The same goes for any kind of assistance Curry County can get to recover from last summer’s Chetco Bar Fire, she said. She, Paasch and County Commissioner Court Boice have been working on the Chetco Wildfire Prevention and Recovery group to get questions answered of the U.S. Forest Service and their perceived shortcomings during the early days of the fire.
Thompson said she heard the out-of-state fire leaders thought the Chetco Effect was a myth, even though they were warned about the hot, dry, fast winds.
“Why weren’t local people out there, showing the people what they were dealing with?” Thompson said. “I would advocate strongly for local people who have been here a long time (to be involved in the next wildfire. That was the worst part, them not knowing.”
Barbas blames the forest service’s modeling for the fire’s exploding over a weekend.
“They said the odds were 1-in-1,000 or 2-in-1,000 of it blowing up, and that’s how they planned for,” he said. “They relied too heavily on it. We know those fires are going to come down the valley. They did not do enough.”
Paasch said the primary goal should have been to extinguish the fire using all the resources available.
“I know we’re going to have another fire, and we need to prepare for it.”
Paasch said the county needs to promote a positive attitude to create a cooperative relationship with the forest service.
“The way fires are fought in this county need to be change,” he said. “I’d like to see … us have a seat at the table. To have people come here from other areas who don’t understand the Chetco winds, the humidity, is a travesty.”
Barbas said he is encouraged that Congress has eliminated the process of “fire borrowing” — taking money from fire prevention coffers to fight fires when firefighting funds run dry.
“It’s about responsibility, it’s about dialogue, transparency — getting together and having that dialogue.”
Recovery needs to begin immediately. Salvage operations are underway on private landholdings, but the forest service hasn’t yet announced its plan for work on public lands.
Barbas said salvage work is needed where trees and soil have suffered significant damage, but removing snags won’t reduce the danger. He’s more concerned, as a Brookings-Harbor port commissioner, about silt loading in the port, which are expected to be 150 percent of normal over the next few years.
And replanting, he noted, is not going to happen, as there are no seeds nationwide to do so.
Paasch, who said forestry and fishing are the lifeblood of the county, advocates a “lot of logging” to clear snags that could easily burn in the next fire.
“We need to do as much as we can do to take down all standing deadwood,” he said. “It’s going to happen again. Let’s get all the deadwood on the ground and replant it.”
Thompson, who almost lost her home in the fire, said there needs to be a balance.
“I see leaving it for biomass,” she said. “I’d prefer to take some out and plant, leaving a lot of buffer zones, bring back the natural prairies. And bring in local and traditional knowledge to turn the lemons we’ve got here into lemonade.”
The board of commissioners has accomplished little in the past four years, and many meetings feature back-biting, interruptions and personal attacks. Also, much time is often spent modifying the agenda and other minutiae.
“The former sheriff, John Bishop, was quoted as he watched in dismay as the commissioners make a mockery of this office; the honor, the integrity,” he said. “We need to move forward, we need to focus on our future, collegially.”
“This board is dysfunctional,” Paasch said. “Meetings are all about who’s going to talk; by the time they’re done arguing about that and amending the agenda, they’ve spent three hours doing nothing.”
He would like to hold morning meetings once a week to banter with citizens about issues and see quorum rules relaxed so commissioners would at least speak to one another. He also wants commissioners to be in their office full-time, and “not putting in their time from offices at home.”
Thompson concurred, saying the board “has to do better to get along better.”
When asked if each had any contact with the sitting board members, Barbas said he knows them all well, Paasch said he has sometimes been critical on some decisions and Thompson said she does not agree “with what Tom Huxley’s been doing a lot up there, but I could work with Sue and Court.”
A few questions were asked about regulating the cannabis industry, considering the problems facing Josephine County and its estimated 5,000 illegal grow sites and the Mexican cartels it has attracted.
Barbas said that while that needs to be monitored and avoided here in Curry, he feels the state’s rules are sufficient. Thompson and Paasch hemmed on the side of conservatism, with neither knowing if the industry is beneficial to the county. Thompson said rules should be enacted to keep teens from leaving school to trim plants.
•A question asked of candidates at the Gold Beach and Brookings forums was if any of them had ever been arrested and served time. Thompson and Barbas said no, but Paasch admitted that when he’d been a teen more than four decades ago, he drove the car in which a passenger had robbed a store in North Carolina. Under that state’s juvenile offender laws, he was considered complicit, worked 10 months on a pig farm and had the record expunged.
He doesn’t know how the information became public again, and said it would cost too much to have to reexpunged.
None in either audience seemed shocked by the revelation.
“It’s been expunged,” he said. “Let he who never sins throw the first stone.”
•He and Thompson also said they feel the county doesn’t need an administrator — four days after the board extended an offer to a Minnesota man — saying the work can be done by dedicated commissioners.
“Well, we’ve got one,” Barbas said, adding that by the time one of them is elected to office, they will have had almost a year to evaluate how well it is going.
“They do take the politics out of the county,” Barbas said. “They provide professionalism. They take care of running the county, which frees us up to be out with you.”
Thompson said she’d forego her commissioner’s salary “just for you” to have an administrator free up her time to listen to constituents.
•Affordable housing and how to lure developers here to build it was also brought up, as was the idea of a hospital in Brookings, which all candidates supported. Barbas said he didn’t know if it was feasible, but said opening the emergency room at Curry Medical Center in town needs to be a priority.
All the candidates talked about their desires to bring transparency, honesty, civil discourse, ethics, respect and dialog with them to the board.
“Healing starts with talking about issues,” Paasch said. “The commissioners don’t even talk to each other, with people in the community. It’s imperative to grow the county. Commissioners are not the boss of the county, and we need to understand that. We work for you.”
Barbas said building win-win solutions is in his DNA.
“We’ve got to get more dialogue going, and I think it’s about respect,” he said. “Finding common ground, reaching out. Sooner or later there will be a breakthrough and we’ll find common ground.”
“I’m big on teamwork,” Thompson said. “We need to focus on the solutions so we can grow and not get stuck in a rut. We need to work together.
Last day to register: April 24
First ballots mailed: April 25
Election Day: May 15