Baker County will eliminate the job of parks coordinator and instead look to hire a contractor to manage Hewitt and Holcomb parks near Richland.
The decision county commissioners made Wednesday was prompted by declining revenue from the two parks and the lack of any sustainable alternate sources of income.
“It’s not a choice I’m trying to make, it’s one we have to make,” Commissioner Chairman Bill Harvey said. “Because we can’t tax the citizens of Baker County for a very expensive model when you can have something that would be almost equal cost to what we’re bringing in.”
Harvey said ending the coordinator position, which Karen Spencer has had since 2007, and hiring a contractor will save the county an estimated $100,000.
Spencer’s salary for the current fiscal year, which started July 1, 2019, was $61,032.
In an interview after Wednesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting, Harvey said the county does not have enough park-related work to justify a full-time coordinator.
“And Karen was really filling the role of contract services basically because she was doing the work along with the temporary seasonal help that she had,” Harvey said.
Spencer’s office is in Baker City, about 46 miles from the two parks. Harvey said the county will try to lease that space, in the historic Sumpter Valley Railroad station near Broadway and 10th streets.
The independent contractor the county wants to hire by April 1 would live on the park property year-round, in a county-owned home. The county will provide the housing, including utilities, for free. Harvey said the contractor’s presence will help discourage vandalism.
Commissioners considered two other possible options.
One is to ask voters to approve a property tax levy to raise money to operate the parks, similar to the existing levies that support, among other services, the library district and mosquito and noxious weed control.
Commissioners decided not to put a tax levy before voters.
A second possibility that commissioners have broached is asking Idaho Power Company to consider taking over maintenance of the two parks, which are on the Powder River arm of Brownlee Reservoir. Idaho Power owns and operates Brownlee Dam, and the Boise company also operates its own parks on Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon reservoirs.
Harvey has written letters to Idaho Power on the matter. The company responded by offering the county up to $10,000 to hire a consultant to look at ways to boost tourism, but declined to operate the two county parks.
Idaho Power gives the county $25,000 annually to hire seasonal parks employees and also pays for litter removal.
Commissioners will meet in a work session on Jan. 15 at 9 a.m. at the Courthouse, 1995 Third St., to discuss the request for proposals for the parks contractor.
Idaho Power will still provide a seasonal employee and help pay for maintenance work.
Spencer and other county officials say inconsistent water levels in Brownlee Reservoir, which at times have made it difficult or impossible to launch boats at the two parks, along with occasional health advisories for toxic blue-green algae in the water have contributed to a drop in visitor numbers.
The county collected a yearly average of about $57,680 from the two parks during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 fiscal years through a combination of camping fees, season passes and sales of ice, firewood and water.
The yearly average for the previous two fiscal years, 2014-15 and 2015-16, was about $70,900.
During the 2008-09 and 2009-10 fiscal years, revenue from the parks averaged about $85,000 annually.
In the past the county has bolstered the parks department budget by selling timber from several county-owned parcels, but given the slow growth of trees in Baker County, that’s a rare revenue opportunity. The county hasn’t received any money from timber sales since the 2011-12 fiscal year.
Another revenue source is selling those parcels outright.
The county received $134,000 in the 2017-18 fiscal year from the sale of two parcels near Eagle Creek, and $64,000 in 2013-14.
The county is seeking now to sell three other parcels — a 121-acre property near Eagle Creek with a market value of $82,700, according to the county assessor’s office, and two parcels near East Pine Creek east of Halfway.
A 40-acre parcel at East Pine Creek has a market value of $41,600, and a 60-acre parcel is valued at $46,800.
Harvey said revenue from land sales would be put in reserve for major capital expenses at the parks, not for regular operations.
“We want to leave the park revenue there to take care of the daily needs of the park,” he said.
Peter Johnson, general manager for Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort, told commissioners Wednesday that the resort, which also operates several Forest Service campgrounds and recently agreed to take over management of Quail Ridge Golf Course in Baker City, is open to partnering with the county to help with the parks problem.
Harvey and other commissioners emphasized that despite the budget problems, both Hewitt and Holcomb parks will remain open, and that the county is taking reservations for camping now.
“I think we need to probably do a far better job of communicating with the community, especially the community out there (near Richland), that we plan to keep the park open,” Commissioner Mark Bennett said. “What that will look like, we’re going to kind of see as money is available.”
Larry Smith told commissioners that fluctuating water levels in the reservoir is responsible for lack of interest in the parks.
“The fluctuation of the water is what’s killed that park down there,” Smith said.
In other business Wednesday, commissioners:
• Approved the road department’s Managing Oregon Resources Efficiently Intergovernmental Agreement (MORE-IGA), which allows Roadmaster Noodle Perkins to rent the county’s new road shoulder machine to the city and other counties so long as a Baker County employee is operating it.
• Approved grant funding request for a part-time victim assistant specialist with the District Attorney’s office.
• approved the updated Baker Heritage Museum assistant and director job descriptions as requested by the county museum board.
• approved the clean-up extension request for property at 14094 Pine Creek Lane. Harvey did not vote on motion as the property belongs to his brother-in-law