Joshua Dillen
The Baker City Herald

Baker County Board of Commissioners Chairman Bill Harvey has been working with Ash Grove Cement on a plan to demolish and clean up the county-owned abandoned lime plant along Interstate 84 near Huntington.

“We have the opportunity to remove the lime plant down to grade level,” Harvey said during a commissioners’ work session Wednesday. “Ash Grove Cement has stepped up and is contributing a lot of money.”

Harvey said Ash Grove, which owns and operates a cement plant near Durkee, would commit about $315,000 to the project, on the condition that the county employ Ash Grove’s contractor to do the work.

The project is estimated to cost about $620,000, compared with past estimates of more than $1.4 million.

Harvey told commissioners Mark Bennett and Bruce Nichols that the county would have to spend $225,000, and the county road department would do some of the work as well.

He said there are time constraints in getting the project done as Ash Grove’s contractor is only available for a short time after April 1.

To accept the proposal, the county would have to exempt the project from public contracting law that requires government agencies to use a competitive bidding process.

Harvey said he has been working with the county’s legal counsel, Drew Martin, on an exemption.

Harvey said the project would allow the county to make the property available for sale as industrial land.

Bennett and Nichols said they’re concerned that the county can’t afford the $225,000. The county didn’t allocate money for the lime plant in its budget for the fiscal year that started July 1, 2017.

“I commend you on all this work, but getting the money — our share — we don’t have that money. That’s what concerns me,” Bennett said. “I believe that we’re not in the financial position mid-year to be doing anything different than what we’ve set out as our budget.”

He said he has talked to a number of people who have all said they did not support the county spending any county dollars on the project unless the county already has a buyer for the property.

Bennett said the county should spend any extra money on its share of Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement system (PERS), which is increasing.

Bennett said that although he agrees that the lime plant is an important project, he thinks the county should be fiscally conservative and consider the project when revenues permit.

“I’m not against doing it, I’m just thinking that the timing’s off,” he said.

Nichols agreed with Bennett.

Nichols also asked Harvey how the county’s share would be $225,000 when the total project cost is $620,000 and Ash Grove is paying $315,000. That leaves $305,000 for the county.

Harvey said he would get that information to Nichols.

Harvey pointed out that the county will be getting an estimated $300,000 to $380,000 in property tax revenues from two new wind farms in the area as well as dollars from the transportation package passed by the Oregon Legislature last year. He said the latter source would free up general fund money that for the current fiscal year went to the road department.

“We do have those that are way more than ample to cover the cost of this,” Harvey said. “There’s no way in God’s earth I can do this any cheaper any time in the future.”

“Do you want to continue the process? Apparently you two don’t want to do this,” Harvey asked Nichols and Bennett.

Nichols said the county needs to identify specific sources of money for its share before he would consider endorsing the proposal.

Nichols asked Harvey if he could negotiate with Ash Grove to do the work when the county could afford it.

“No, no! I’m not going back to them six times,” Harvey said.

Then Nichols suggested that all three commissioners schedule a meeting with Ash Grove officials.

“No! This has already been arranged,” Harvey said. “I’ve begged them already. Don’t push them, please. Jeez, they’re doing us a favor to begin with.”

Nichols agreed, but he said: “What is this ‘I’ stuff all the time. How about we go back to them?”

Harvey said he has been the one working on the deal for a year.

“I’ve asked as a favor to have Ash Grove work with us. They did,” Harvey said. “I can’t push them. They’re a gift horse, OK?”

Lisa Ketteler, director of communications for Ash Grove, which is based in Overland Park, Kansas, wrote in an email to the Herald:

“Ash Grove Cement does not own the lime plant, but we share in Baker County’s goal to have the site flattened and be a safe and desirable location for a business in the future and have offered a contribution to the county to help defray the cost of the clean-up effort.”

The county acquired the property through foreclosure in 1999. The plant, which opened in 1923, ceased operation in 1980. The Lime post office had closed in 1964.

Bennett said if there’s an opportunity to discuss the project during the budget process and not have to use contingency funds for the project, then the discussion should continue.

See more in the Feb. 16, 2018, issue of the Baker City Herald.