Roger Nyquist will chair the Linn County Board of Commissioners for the 16th time in his 18 years on the board.
Fellow commissioners John Lindsey, vice chair, and Will Tucker voiced their approval of Nyquist’s leadership during the first meeting of the year Tuesday morning.
After the meeting, he spoke with the Democrat-Herald about the state of the county.
The brightest news locally, he said, is that the economy — although facing numerous unknowns — is the strongest he's seen in several years. The county's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate fell from 4.8 percent to 4.4 percent in November. (Statewide, unemployment stood at 4.2 percent on Dec. 1, down slightly from 4.3 percent in November.)
“I see one modular-home manufacturer in Albany is advertising beginning jobs at almost $600 per week,” Nyquist said, adding that nearly anyone who really wants a job should have no trouble finding one.
The commissioners have long believed it is their duty to help create opportunities for the marketplace and entrepreneurs.
“Our underlying question is always, 'What can we do to help facilitate job growth?'” Nyquist said. “Virtually everything we do is screened through that filter.”
Topping the list of economic projects that could have positive outcomes for the county is the development of a trans-load facility at the former International Paper site in Millersburg. The Albany-Millersburg Economic Development Corp. and the city of Lebanon have both applied for $25 million in state funds available for such a project. Other applications are from Brooks, Eugene-Springfield and Northwest Container/Portland.
The commissioners believe the Millersburg site provides an excellent location and is large enough to develop an industrial or agriculturally oriented complex to go along with the trans-loading process.
Nyquist said the facility and possible onsite ancillary businesses could have a long-term impact much like the medical campus in Lebanon.
On another issue, Nyquist said the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce's Pipeline program, which teaches young people about the skills needed to get and keep jobs, needs continued support.
“Local companies can only grow if they can get trained help,” he said.
And, he added, young people can further their education with vocational training programs at places like Linn-Benton Community College and then step into jobs that pay $50,000 or more annually, without incurring extensive debts by attending four-year programs.
Over the last 10 years, as the country wrestled with the recession, agriculture continued to be strong in Linn County. Timber prices are strong and grass seed prices have rebounded. Nationwide, housing sales and new home construction numbers are up. New houses need new lawns.
The number of acres being planted to hazelnuts continues to increase by the thousands annually.
But farmers are concerned about finding employees, domestic or those who come to Oregon on work visas. An unstable work base casts a big shadow for agriculture.
The unknowns concerning jobs center around state mandates such as escalating minimum wage levels and benefits such as paid sick leave. For government, those issues also include long-term public pension liabilities that must be included in budgets.
Nyquist said Gov. Kate Brown’s Cleaner Air Oregon program could have significant effects on business, depending on how deep proposed regulations go. Industries will not want to invest millions of dollars in new equipment or hire staff if the Cleaner Air Oregon regulations are too egregious, he said.
Nyquist said he and his fellow commissioners remain adamant that marijuana production and sales are not good for residents of Linn County. But voters approved it and the county’s Planning Department is processing numerous applications for growing operations.
“There are many issues, such as the proposed marijuana operation just outside the city limits of Brownsville,” Nyquist said. “Area residents have many legitimate concerns.”
And along that line, Nyquist believes it is important that Samaritan Health Service’s planned alcohol and drug rehabilitation facility be finished. The residential facility has been put on hold until funding can be completed.
It has been scheduled to move forward until the state of Oregon imposed a tax on hospital income to fund health care programs for children. Oregonians will vote on Ballot Measure 101 this month to determine if that tax will stand or be revoked.
Nyquist said the county will continue to lead the charge in terms of pushing back against the state when it's deemed necessary.
Attorneys representing Linn County and the Oregon Department of Forestry will be in Linn County Circuit Court at 1:30 p.m. Thursday for a hearing to discuss the county’s $1.4 billion breach of contract lawsuit versus the Department of Forestry.
The county and other taxing districts believe the state has not met its financial obligations concerning timber sales from state forest lands. The lawsuit argues that the state has allowed other management priorities to decrease the number of acres harvested annually, a trend that has decreased annual payments to counties, along with other government entities.
The county is also involved in a lawsuit against the state of Oregon involving unfunded mandates such as paid sick leave.
“We feel pretty good about what we have accomplished,” Nyquist said. “That’s especially true for the unfunded mandates lawsuit. There were some potential rulings curbed during the last legislative session in part because of that lawsuit.”
Despite all unknowns, Nyquist believes the county runs efficiently.
“We have nearly 700 employees and 10 independently elected officials,” he said. “We offer quite a cadre of services and we work pretty well as a team.”