By Kara McMurray Gazette Reporter
Whitman County Commissioners Monday conducted hearings on the second amendment to this year’s budget and the 2017 budget. The county weed department was present to request the budget amendment, totaling $5,238 for overtime work. Peggy Wright, county weed coordinator, explained to the commissioners her duties which have contributed to the overtime she has worked. Among these were pulling weeds on county road sides, bio collection, overseeing spray jobs for trails, working with the Corps of Engineers at Almota and checking product at nurseries for noxious weeds, among other duties. “I’ve worked by myself since 2005,” said Wright. “We don’t get every weed, but we make a difference.” Wright pointed out that there are 2,178 square miles in the county for her to cover by herself. Neal McCall, a weed board member, said that Wright is doing the work of several people. “You’re asking one person to do the work of all the previous people,” he said. The board said this amendment presents challenges. “The challenge for us as a board is to figure out where to make cuts,” said Commissioner Michael Largent. “The monies being presented to us by the state are less.” Commissioner Art Swannack stated there is not enough money in the budget to cover “everything we’d like to do.” “The department manager has to manage the budget to stay within the budget,” said Swannack. “Overtime was not budgeted.” Auditor Eunice Coker was also present, and she expressed her frustration with the discussion. “You’ve got a person who has worked more than 40 hours a week and has put it in as comp time,” she said. “Work needed to get done; it got done. How can you not pay this employee for the time they’ve worked?” “We’re going to have a lot of difficult conversations as we move into 2017,” Largent responded. “This is one of them. I don’t like it. This money needs to come from somewhere.” Commissioner Dean Kinzer said the request puts the board in a hard place. “Trying to honor their request is difficult, if not impossible,” he said. The matter was ultimately not voted on at the meeting, but the commissioners voted to take more time to review the request and plan to discuss it at their meeting Monday, Oct. 24, at 9 a.m. in the courthouse. The conversation then shifted to the 2017 budget plan. The county is currently looking at a proposed budget with a deficit totaling approximately $140,000. “We’ve got to find $140,000 somewhere,” said Largent. Coker immediately brought the discussion back to the weed department. “I’ve also heard the weed department has been told they can’t budget overtime for 2017,” she said. “The weed department is important to this entire agriculture community... It’s just embarrassing to me and wrong that you’re going to … hold her to an ancient budget amount and still expect the work to get done.” Largent said this issue is not unfamiliar to most county departments. “The weed board is just one of many. Most departments have compelling needs,” he said. “Where do we find for 2017 the $140,000 we need? We hear every day the compelling needs in the departments.” Largent reminded those present that most of the funds the county has are determined by the state. “The commissioners do not generate revenue,” he said. “The state holds both the cost drivers and the purse strings.” McCall then made a comment to the commissioners. “I think we still see you guys take your pay increases,” he said. “I’m not going to interfere with the independence of the salary commission,” explained Largent. “I’ve never lobbied them or attempted to at any time. That’s not my call.” Doug Meyer, another member of the weed board, said jobs need to get done despite what the budget is. “You just have to go until the job’s done,” he said. “I just think Peggy needs a little bit of leeway.” Commissioner Swannack said there is not leeway in the budget. “The reality is, we only have so many dollars to work with. You don’t spend money unless you have it. There isn’t more money,” he said. “We all like to be perfect, but we may have to live with an 85 percent job instead of a 100 percent job.” Wright said her department would receive a number of complaints if she operated that way. “I’ll pass the complaint onto you guys, then,” she said. Commissioner Kinzer said the concern in the budget is trying to figure out how to balance state mandates with the needs of the county. “We cannot avoid doing some things,” he said. “We have to look at other areas not covered by state statutes.” He gave the example of the coroner’s budget, which he described as an estimate. “There’s no way you can control the number of deaths you have in the county,” said Kinzer. “There’s things we cannot cut back on. We are looking at those things that are required by statutes.” Largent said he wants to see more discussions with the state regarding the budget. “This type of thing is the least enjoyable thing of what I am charged with doing,” he said. “We are passing down what the state is passing to us. Much of this conversation needs to be had with the state legislature, and trust me, we are.” Public hearings for the 2017 budget are now concluded, but Largent said the board would still take comments. “The doors are still open, phone lines are still there,” he said.
By Garth Meyer Gazette Reporter
The Palouse solar farm is taking shape, under construction since August, for a project that will power the city’s well No. 3. After groundbreaking, the site work has been completed and underground wiring installed. What remains to be done is installation of steel framing, the solar panels and invertors which convert solar energy to electricity. “It’s going according to schedule and should be up and going by the middle of November,” said Mike Fuentes, energy division manager at Apollo Solutions of Spokane, contractor on the project. Fall weather has caused delays, with wind a particular issue in placing the panels. “Those things can act like sails,” Fuentes said. The half-acre solar farm will consist of 2.5x5-foot non-tracking panels. It is expected to save Palouse $8,000 per year in electricity costs. Working with Apollo is subcontractor Pennell Renewables, also of Spokane. Originally contacted by Fuentes last December for a free energy audit, the city entered into an agreement with Apollo, and its fees were built into the project cost. Palouse City Council in June authorized Mayor Michael Echanove to apply for financing of up to $140,000. Later, a $130,000 state Local Option Capital Asset Lending program loan was paired with a $277,000 grant secured by Apollo Solutions from the Washington Department of Enterprise Services. The total estimated cost is $400,000. Loan payments will be made from the expected savings in energy costs with the solar panels. The 70-kilowatt panels, facing south and west, will power Palouse water well No. 3. The solar site is on the south side of Palouse, just past the railroad tracks. The well and pump in question were installed in the early 2000s after the flood of 1996 threatened the city’s downtown well No. 1. The Palouse City Council in January approved an expenditure of $12,000 to hire Apollo to do an investment grade audit of their original work – which stemmed from a cold call last November. “There’s no cost to the city in the long run to be putting in the solar farm,” said Echanove. “Either we’re writing a check to Avista or paying the loan.”
-Carol Fleener photo Stunning, serene scenery like this autumn sunrise enmbracing Kamiak Butte is one of the attractions of the Palouse area. Palouse Scenic Byway and Whitman County Chambers of Commerce are to conduct their quarterly joint meeting Monday, Oct. 24, at noon at The Center at the Colfax Library. This meeting provides an opportunity to discuss issues and events that are happening across the region as well as to learn about the latest information from the Palouse Scenic Byway’ project. Encouraging travel within our region, the byway is a road map through 13 local communities and numerous visitor attractions. www.palousescenicbyway.org. Anyone interested in attending Monday’s meeting and reserving a lunch can call Carol Cooper at 509-334-3535 or contact email@example.com.