Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

The Baker City Council has handed the Baker County Board of Commissioners an opportunity.

And $136,000.

What the three commissioners choose to do with that money, which is

collected from people who stay in local motels, RV parks and

bed-and-breakfasts, will largely determine whether the City Council's

recent decision to disband the city's community and economic

development department was wise or foolhardy.

The county used to send that money to City Hall.

The city used the dollars to run the now-defunct department. Its two

employees, Jennifer Watkins and Gene Stackle, both lost their jobs when

the Council last month approved the budget for the fiscal year that

started Thursday.

With that decision, the city's $136,000 share of lodging taxes reverted to the county's coffers.

The loss of Watkins' position is potentially troublesome because she

was instrumental in the city's success over the past decade or so at

obtaining state and federal grants for projects such as the extension

of the Leo Adler Memorial Parkway.

But the county commissioners can alleviate that concern by using some

of the $136,000 to create a job that's very much like Watkins' former

post as community development director.

Combined with small business development center money, which supports existing and start-up businesses, the person hired for this new position could help not only Baker City, but also the county and its other incorporated cities such as Haines, Halfway and Huntington, and businesses countywide.

Fred Warner Jr., chairman of the board of commissioners, has also suggested that the county might use some of the $136,000 to run Ski Anthony Lakes this winter.

The owners of the county's only ski area, who are tired of plowing money into the business, have asked the county to take it over.

It sounds reasonable for the county to spend a relatively small portion of the $136,000 to prop up Ski Anthony Lakes.

But the county has other important attractions - the Sumpter Valley Railroad and Hells Canyon Adventures to name just two - that also lure visitors who spend money local businesses.

The lodging tax money - which is wholly separate from the property taxes that local residents pay - is supposed to be used to promote Baker County and all of its attractions.

Preventing one of those attractions from closing - if no other viable option is available - might be a justifiable expense.

However, using public money to operate, rather than just to promote, private businesses doesn't appeal to us as much as spending those dollars to continue the sort of work that Watkins accomplished during her 12-year tenure at City Hall, and to expand that work to the rest of the county.

If that doesn't happen, then the city might end up losing more than just $136,000 in annual revenue.