By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
Idaho Power Company has withdrawn its offer to spend $178,000 to improve Baker County parks and roads on the shores of Brownlee Reservoir, an offer County Commission Chairman Brian Cole calls andquot;insulting.andquot;
A company official said this week that the deal was contingent on the County Commission signing an agreement stating the county would support Idaho Power's effort to secure a new federal license for its three dams in Hells Canyon.
County commissioners have not signed that deal.
Nor will they sign the agreement in its current form, Cole said.
He said he was andquot;outraged and insultedandquot; by Idaho Power's offer, which he said does not include millions of dollars in road and park improvements he claims a company official committed to during a meeting in Idaho in November 2000.
andquot;I walked out of that pizza place in Eagle, Idaho, in a complete state of elation,andquot; Cole said Wednesday.
He said the Idaho Power official told him the company would maintain the Snake River Road from Huntington to Richland for the life of the new license, which probably will be for at least 40 years (the current 50-year license expires in July 2005).
The county road department estimates maintenance would cost about $400,000 per year, Cole said a commitment of at least $16 million over the life of Idaho Power's license.
Cole said the official also agreed Idaho Power would spend more than $1 million (and as much as $4 million) to add to and improve Hewitt and Holcomb parks, two county-owned parks on Brownlee Reservoir near Richland.
Thus, Cole said, he was in andquot;total disbeliefandquot; when he received Idaho Power's $178,000 proposal in June 2001.
andquot;This company led us down a path and changed the rules in the middle of it,andquot; Cole said.
Mike Nelson of Friends of Brownlee, a non-profit group whose main goal is to keep its namesake reservoir as full as possible as much of the year as possible, accompanied Cole to the November 2000 meeting.
Like Cole, Nelson said he believed Idaho Power had committed to much more than $178,000 in improvements, including maintaining the Snake River Road.
andquot;We were just chagrined when we sawandquot; Idaho Power's proposal, Nelson said. andquot;Shocked.andquot;
But John Prescott, Idaho Power's vice president of generation, calls the matter a andquot;misunderstanding.andquot;
Prescott, who is not the official Cole met with in Idaho in November 2000, said he has discussed with Cole the maintenance of the Snake River Road.
But Prescott said he does not believe any company official ever has guaranteed that the company would maintain the road for the life of the license Idaho Power is applying for.
Apparently it never was clear to both the county and the company what was being discussed, and what was being committed to.
andquot;We never quite communicated to the degree I was satisfied,andquot; Prescott said. andquot;We never had a good clear meeting of the minds.andquot;
Cole maintains the commitment to the road and the parks was made.
andquot;I know what I heard,andquot; he said.
Terms of the agreement
Despite being disappointed by the $178,000 offer, Cole said the county commissioners still hope the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission grants Idaho Power a new license for the dams in Hells Canyon.
He said he would prefer a company in an adjacent state, rather than one across the country, own and operate the dams in Hells Canyon.
Given that, Prescott said he doesn't understand why the county commissioners didn't sign Idaho Power's $178,000 proposal.
He said he believes that the county, if it signed the deal, would not give up its right to seek provisions in the license requiring Idaho Power to do any number of other things, including maintaining the Snake River Road and improving Baker County's two parks.
Cole, though, is not convinced.
The proposed agreement, he points out, would require the county, in exchange for the $178,000 in improvements andquot;upon the request of IPCandquot; send representatives to meetings, and write letters supporting Idaho Power's effort to secure a new federal license.
The agreement also would require the county, again at the company's request, to andquot;engage in reasonable activities that are aimed at ensuring the citizens of Baker County continue to understand and genuinely support IPC's efforts in Baker County and support IPC's application to relicense the Hells Canyon Complex.andquot;
Cole said he believes that by agreeing to those conditions, commissioners would hamper the county's ability to ensure the new license requires Idaho Power to fulfill obligations he thinks the company has neglected for the past five decades specifically, parks and roads on the Baker County side of the canyon.
andquot;I'm not going to give up Baker County's ability to negotiate its interests for $178,000,andquot; Cole said. andquot;I am very confident that we will do far better than that by not signing this now.andquot;
Idaho Power will file its preliminary application for a new license this September, Prescott said. The final application is due in July 2003.
He said he still hopes to reach an agreement with Baker County that would guarantee improvements to the county's parks and roads before the new license takes effect.
andquot;It's not our intent to turn our back on Baker County,andquot; he said. andquot;We're trying to be a good player to the extent possible.andquot;
County on andquot;short end of the stickandquot;
Cole said he first learned early in 2001, from Prescott, that Idaho Power might not agree to maintain the road and improve the parks.
Prescott, who met with Cole earlier this week, said he hopes representatives from the company and the county will sit down soon to discuss the matter and, he hopes, hammer out an agreement acceptable to both.
Although Idaho Power might make minor changes to its offer, the dollar figure will remain at or very close to $178,000, Prescott said.
andquot;It's hard for me to justify to my 400,000 customers to spend more than that when I don't have to (spend any),andquot; he said.
Prescott said he emphasized to Cole that the county, even if it signs the agreement, could still seek to require additional work from Idaho Power as a condition of the new license.
andquot;This isn't saying, 'gosh, Baker County, this is all you're getting,' andquot; Prescott said. andquot;This is a goodwill gesture ahead of relicensing.andquot;
Cole said he understands that Idaho Power's $178,000 offer is separate from any improvements the license might require the company to make.
But he doesn't see any goodwill.
He believes Idaho Power's $178,000 offer continues the company's trend of neglecting Baker County, a trend Cole thinks started when the company obtained its first federal license in 1955.
Cole said he believes Baker County has andquot;been on the short end of the stickandquot; in two major areas related to Idaho Power's roads and parks.
Why, he asks, is the Snake River Road on the Oregon side of Hells Canyon a gravel road maintained by Baker County, while the road on the Idaho side that leads to Hells Canyon Dam is paved and maintained by Idaho Power.
andquot;They don't pay anything for the Snake River Road, a road which has the primary responsibility of accessing recreation sites on (Brownlee) Reservoir,andquot; Cole said.
Cole also points out that three of Idaho Power's parks in Hells Canyon are on the Idaho side (Woodhead, Hells Canyon and McCormick), while only one, Copperfield, is in Oregon.
Neither of Baker County's parks, Hewitt and Holcomb, is as large or as fancy as Idaho Power's parks, Cole said.
andquot;The county's interests have not been served for 50 years, and until that happens we're not signing any agreements,andquot; he said.
Idaho Power offered to do the following in exchange for the Baker County Commission's support for the company's application for a new license for Hells Canyon, Brownlee and Oxbow dams:
o Pay up to $100,000 to design a build a boat ramp near Swede's Landing, south of Richland, that would allow boats to launch when the reservoir is low.
o Pay up to $40,000 to repave the road between Holcomb and Hewitt parks.
o Pay up to $20,000 to build a stairway at Hewitt Park that would lead to the water when the reservoir is low.
o Pay up to $10,000 of the cost to extend a power line to Holcomb Park.
o Pay up to $8,000 to plan improvements at Holcomb Park.