Gorge Commission reacts to budget cuts

Review deadlines relaxed to aid strained planners

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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HOOD RIVER, Ore. — The Columbia River Gorge Commission, facing new cuts to its already slashed budget, took action Tuesday to give its tiny planning staff more time to review development applications from Gorge counties.

The latest cut of about $200,000 in the bistate agency’s 2011-13 budget is largely the result of an apparent snafu by budget writers in the Washington Legislature. Gov. Chris Gregoire had proposed rolling the commission’s appropriation into the Department of Ecology budget beginning in 2012 as a way to streamline administrative costs. Budget writers reduced the Gorge Commission’s budget accordingly; in fact, the Senate originally proposed to slash it by $300,000.

In the end, consolidation of the Gorge Commission and natural resource agencies into a single state agency didn’t happen but the cuts remained. The final Washington budget allocates $737,000 to the commission for the next biennium. In contrast, the Oregon Legislature has allocated $814,900. Add those together and you get $1.55 million — a reduction of $200,000, or 20 percent, from the 2009-11 appropriation.

In fact, the bistate compact that governs the commission requires it to spend identical amounts from each state, so the commission is limited to spending $737,000 from each state in 2011-13. About $78,000 appropriated by Oregon lawmakers must remain untouched.

“We need to go back to Olympia next year and get this sorted out,” Gorge Commission Executive Director Jill Arens told the commissioners Tuesday.

Arens said the latest cuts, coming on top of three previous budget cuts in the past 18 months, will reduce the commission’s staff to fewer than five full-time equivalent positions, the agency’s lowest-ever staffing level. Already the commission has shifted to a four-day workweek to accommodate its staff of part-timers, and the commission’s meeting schedule has been chopped to save travel expenses. Commissioners won’t meet again until Sept. 13.

The planning staff has been reduced by two-thirds, from 4.5 FTEs to 1.5 FTEs, over the past three years. Arens said the latest cut means she won’t be able to hire a new principal planner, a position that’s key to moving forward with revisions to the scenic area management plan. Several highly qualified candidates have applied for the job, she said.

Also on the chopping block is a part-time position overseeing the Vital Signs Project, an ambitious effort to quantify the changes that have occurred in the scenic area over the past 25 years. Arens and Commissioners Joyce Reinig and Don Bonker will travel to Washington, D.C. next week to lobby members of Congress and top Forest Service officials to save the project, which is the commission’s top priority.

A 3 percent salary reduction for state workers in Washington also applies to the commission staff, which has had no cost-of-living increase for three years,

Bonker, a former 3rd District congressman, said the commission has to stay engaged in the political process. “If we’re not proactive, we’re going to lose out in the long run,” he said.

In response to the cuts, Arens asked the commission for a temporary rule that changes deadlines to target dates for her planners. Under current rules, they have 14 days to review development applications for completeness and must decide whether to approve or deny applications within 72 days. Now deadlines will be only guidelines. Klickitat County will be the most affected by the rule change, because the Gorge Commission staff processes all development applications in the part of that county which lies within the national scenic area. Planners also review scenic area applications handled by county planning staff in the other five counties, including Clark.

“It’s unfortunate for the landowners that we may have to extend those deadlines,” Arens said.

The temporary rule will be in effect for 120 days. About 10 pending applications will be affected.

Commissioner Keith Chamberlain, who represents Skamania County, said, “I have a little bit of a problem with not having a deadline. While it will make our workload more flexible, we should have some concern about the public not knowing when they’re going to get an answer.”

“We still want to meet our deadline,” said Jeff Litwak, the commission’s part-time attorney, “but we may not be able to do it. With a change in the rules we can tell people, ‘We’re sorry, we can’t always make that deadline.’”