County candidates meet in Tonasket for forum

Okanogan County commissioner candidates (from left) Salley Bull, Jim DeTro and Robert Fuchs.

TONASKET – Okanogan County Commissioner candidates for District 3 Salley Bull and Robert Fuchs, along with incumbent Jim DeTro, answered questions at a July 11 forum at Tonasket Elementary School.

The event, moderated by George Thornton, Scott Olson, Danika Smith and Sandy Vaughn, allowed candidates three minutes each to introduce themselves and three minutes to answer each question.

DeTro was born in Omak in 1948 and graduated from Omak High School before going to college in Cheney. At age 16, he began driving truck for DNR and began working at the smokejumper base in Winthrop at age 18, remaining there through his college years from 1967 through 1973.

“I was a wildland firefighter for 54 years, until three years ago,” said DeTro. “I've had my pilots license for 45 years, so I've seen the county from one end to the other and horse packed into the backcountry, so I have a diverse view of the country.”

DeTro and his wife Patty live in Crumbacher, where they built a house in 1996.

DeTro said other work he has done included log trucking and heavy-haul along with buying and selling heavy machinery, which he still does.

Robert Fuchs said he and his wife came to the U.S. from Germany in 1996 and became “proud U.S. citizens” five years ago. Fuchs said he went to Guam on a work visa before working in California and North Carolina. They moved to Oroville in 2000, where he worked at Alpine Brewing Company and Princes Department Store, becoming a manager there. The last two years he has worked as a bus driver for Oroville School District and as a night security guard for Veranda Beach. Fuchs volunteered for the Oroville Fire Department for 10 years and was elected to Oroville City Council last year.

“I am running as an independent,” said Fuchs. “I got emails from organizations that want to endorse me, so I filled out the paperwork, then thought if they help me financially, then I have to vote in their favor. So, I didn't fill out any more endorsements, so I can make the best decisions for citizens and the county, not connected to any organization or party.”

Salley Bull is also running as an independent. She is nearly a lifelong resident of north Okanogan County, and had worked as a custodian for Tonasket School District 20 years ago when it moved into the new buildings. Bull said she has history in the north end of the county with the Holmes and the Woods.

“The Holmes homesteaded in Chewillaken Valley and the Reverend Woods of Ellisforde with the Brethren Church and Whitestone church,” said Bull. “I went to Oroville schools all 12 years, and my kids went to school in Tonasket. I've lived in Loomis eight years and North Pine Creek 18, so I have friends throughout the county.” Bull said she serves on the Okanogan County Planning Commission, where they are revamping the comprehensive plan right now.

“The last one came under a legal review, so we are changing some things including a ground water and cannabis review,” said Bull. “I am on the Board of Equalization, where we look over property appraisals and make sure the assessor has done it correctly.”

Bull said she also serves on the Oroville Library and Community Board and a couple other committees involved in community service.

The Comprehensive Plan for the county is undergoing review. What plan adjustments would you favor, and why?

Fuchs said he read through the whole 50-page plan, which had a lot of information, and he also read suggestions about the plan.

“Our biggest problem is the water issue. It is not addressed enough, and water needs to be addressed better. It is our most important resource, not the internet like some might think,” said Fuchs. “We had life before the internet, but we won't have life after water.”

Bull said an issue with the Comprehensive Plan they are dealing with is Water Resource Inventory Area 49, the Okanogan area. Guidelines were set by Senate Bill 6091.

“We have state guidelines to go by to get things in line, and they are supposed to be providing money and guidance for us,” said Bull.

DeTro said the comprehensive plan is a policy document that has not been revamped since 1964.

“The process to review it started four years before I came to office in 2011. There are a lot of regulations, which is against what a policy document is about,” said DeTro, adding the document had grown, but they had it down to 52 pages now after pulling “all that outdated stuff out of the plan.”

“The result of the Whatcom-Hirst decision, we added that to what the comprehensive plan will be and immediately faced litigation,” said DeTro. “We put special committees together and when the Methow came to us with their document, we codified it and the next day we were sued. Some of the changes are natural, such as urban growth areas are now called city expansion areas, so there were a lot of verbiage changes. There is a lot of work that has to be done on it yet. We spent many hours listening to soliloquizes on philosophical things happening with the plan, and I think once we codify it we will be litigated again.”

Please address how the county can work towards a balance of competing interests in public land uses, such as recreation or resource us, or access to public lands.

Bull said coming to a balance of competing interests is difficult, and the solution required input from everyone.

“ This is not something county commissioners can decide all by themselves, it needs input from everyone on how they want it handled,” said Bull.

DeTro said he sits on the National Association of Counties Public Lands organization and attended a Western Interregional get-together with 15 states where they discussed getting back to multiple use with the Forest Service, DNR and other agencies. DeTro said he sits on a wildland fire committee, with a new commissioner who is placing emphasis back on initial attack.

“You have a fire and you throw everything at it, then the assessor arrives, and you can start peeling back resources not needed. Trying to balance all these public land resources and recreation, I sit on the Okanogan County Council of Government, to integrate all these things and am also on the board of NWIC. We meet bimonthly and discuss all the issues on the agenda, such as Apex Predator, fire, anything to do with resource evaluation. We work with regional foresters and forest rangers. We've worked from the regional office all the way down to local offices and had a lot of solutions as a result of that.”

Fuchs said with competing land use, everybody wants to use it, from people on ATVs to fishermen.

“It's tough to make everyone happy,” said Fuchs. “At a recent commissioners meeting, they were talking about how to mark trails, to have separate areas for everyone. So, if someone wants to fish, they stay away from the ATV trails. So, it's best to stay out of each other’s ways with designated groups.”

How will you make sure that county government is open and responsive to all residents?

Fuchs said if he was elected, he planned to go on a regular basis to council meetings and school board meetings to see if there are any issues, or if anyone needs to ask him anything or talk to him or address problems.

“To address anything right there in the city level before it gets bigger and more costly,” said Fuchs. “To be there to fix problems on the spot, before they get bigger and bigger. Commissioner meetings should be the least amount of executive sessions as possible.

DeTro said with things used to be less formal before the Open Public Meetings Act.

“We had maybe a total of five executive sessions the first year I started, but it has slowly progressed into a situation where the manual is probably 2,000 pages,” said DeTro. “So, when we meet in sessions Mondays and Tuesdays and occasionally on Wednesdays, the other two days the commissioners come and go with appointments. I like to get out into the community. The reason for executive sessions is the public meetings act. It regulates you to the point, if you came in and testify in one meeting, we can't address your name in the previous meeting unless we go into executive session. We have a legal counsel right there to make sure we don't address something we can't. It comes down to us from the big concrete puzzle in Olympia, and it puts a burden on us. We try to be as open as we can and have a citizen comment portion of the meeting.”

Bull said it was hard to have any meetings outside of Okanogan and have people attend.

“I've been to enough meetings to know people don't come,” said Bull. “They don't come to council meetings, school board meetings, so to move the site of the meeting isn't feasible.”

Bull said the Spokane City Council takes out a half page ad in the newspaper to say what was discussed at the last meeting.

“I don't know how expensive that would be, but on Thursday mornings commissioners have a talk on KOMW,” said Bull. “Some open and transparent things are going on, but it's hard to know unless you are actually there. It's not a good solution.”

How would you promote employment and job security in our county?

DeTro said he is a proponent of protecting the customs and culture of Okanogan County.

“I have always been a proponent of SOS, save our sawmills. We have had some ups and downs in the industry. The plywood plant in Omak shut down due to restrictions,” said DeTro. “People talk about the need to create jobs, but we need industries to come in here to create some good family wage jobs. A truck driver job posted a month ago got zero responses. They have made the CDL and restrictions on truck drivers so hard they don't want to drive trucks anymore. They have a good medical program, with the Teamsters Union, but with all that it's still difficult to have someone come and work because of excessive regulation. If you go to work for the county and are in a union, you have a secure job. In the rest of the county, have some light industry such as the fruit industry in Omak, but it is hard in the Tonasket area, it has gone through trials and tribulations.”

Bull said the WorkSource and L&I training programs being promoted right now are very useful.

“They are working in the schools now with minimum wage jobs and to learn good work ethics,” said Bull. “WorkSource is looking for meat cutters and dental assistants and lots of other jobs people can do, but small businesses have to grow to employ more. The 60/90 wage sharing program cuts the wages in half for employers to pay for a time, but in the wintertime the workers are laid off.” Bull said another idea was promoting industries to come in and use area warehouses now sitting empty.

“The rail line can bring more industry, as does the heavy haul road in Oroville,” said Bull. “Within the first 100 miles of the south part of Canada is 90 percent of their population, and we need to be tapping that opportunity.”

Fuchs said he went to WorkSource and spoke with Marcus Alden and talked about the apprenticeship program.

“In Germany, if you don't go to college, you start an apprenticeship program,” said Fuchs. “I talked to Marcus to see if we can get more programs like that here and he said this is just getting started. When you go across the border, there is a population of 5,000 people that in the summer grows to 25,000. If we find ways to target that tourist population, we have a lot of nice trails, and they want to have something to do. I went on a trip with my son and talked to a zipline owner, who said you have to own the land or have permission. The county has a lot of land here, I want to build a zipline on county land, that would be an attraction to bring some people across the border to eat and shop. We could put a go cart track in one of those warehouses. Also, visitors to the campground and Veranda Beach, they want to have something to do. To get some of those visitors in Osoyoos across the border to spend money, would be a good way.”

What is the county's role in immigration?

Bull pointed out there were all kinds of immigrants. “Right now, we use a lot of H2A people to work in orchards, so it's not an immigration issue, it's a work Visa. But families with green cards is,” said Bull. “We need people here to do work we have learned not to do. We haven't really expanded the job resource to where they can work elsewhere, and we are dependent on the immigrants that come here.”

Fuchs said the federal immigration law allows the Department of Homeland Security to target illegals and send them back home.

“The county is not enforcing that. We need even illegal labor, or we wouldn't have any orchard workers here,” said Fuchs. “I asked a coworker and he said, 'Just round them up and send them home.' I said, 'Who is going to pick the apples? So, we send them home, the orchardists lose the orchard and we buy the apples from China?'” Fuchs added that any immigrants who commit crimes “need to be sent home.”

DeTro said the county follows the letter of the law. “We've already been schooled on ICE holds and came to an agreement on those. Fortunately, we don't have a problem like they do on the southern border,” said DeTro, pointing out that Gebbers Farms employs 2,800 seasonal people to pick, making sure they have green cards and ID.

“The minister of Jamaica at Gebbers Farms a couple years ago said they are on a visa program and they go back,” said DeTro. “A lot of people have misconceptions about that. One young fellow had his hat on sideways and sloppy pants, the minister said, 'He is going home with us.' They pick 16,000 boxes of fruit a day. I am for legal immigration, but it's unfair with illegal immigrants for them to go through the process and become a legal citizen. I think Okanogan County has a one up on this situation because of the process they use.”

What are your ideas to ensure Okanogan County's financial stability in terms of increasing revenue and/or decreasing expenses?

Fuchs said one thing to do to cut down on one of the costs is, as a commissioner, to attend city council meetings, school board meetings and chamber of commerce meetings to find out what the problems in the county are.

“At that point it's still a small problem and easier. Less people are involved until it goes down to Okanogan to the commissioners and the cost gets higher,” said Fuchs. “Also, to attract Canadian tourists to come down and spend money.”

Bull said the county commissioners make executive decisions on the budget and have people come in and ask for budget increases.

“We should go by our history. We are going to be facing a shortfall in taxes with the mine shutting down, so we are going to have to tighten our belts a little,” said Bull. “I see notices about supplemental budgets, but we need to be careful how they spend. Budget fully and go through with it, even if it means making tougher decisions.”

DeTro said the county's current expense fund is $22 million, and the $26 million public works budget has a different source, including state funds and grants.

“The current expense budget is very tough, it always is. We go by the bottom line on the budget, so the departments have the ability to budget line by line as we go through the process. But if they see they missed something, they can put it there as long as they don't go over budget. There are a lot less supplemental budgets.”

DeTro said in the past, if one department was over on one line, it would lock everything up and that's why they go to the bottom line.

“Ideas to increase revenue are, we passed a one-tenth of one percent tax for the juvenile department, so that will target that. The citizens elected to keep kids here, and are making a financial contribution to do that,” said DeTro. “Health safety and criminal defenses, marijuana is doing so well each county should receive $1 million for criminal defense, and that is one thing I will fight for this year.”

Regarding county regulation of business activity and property rights, what are some areas where you think we need either reduced or additional regulation?

Bull said one area where a little more regulation was needed is with cannabis grow operations.

“We need to have the fencing and smells addressed better, and water issues for some of them,” said Bull. “But if we can get things handled it is a good business for this county. They did a million dollars in sales in this county last year.”

DeTro said the trucking industry is heavily regulated, and less regulation means more personal freedom.

“We did a lot of work on the cannabis issue with a cannabis advisory board, and we put up a moratorium until we could get a handle on it. There was an association of counties that said, 'You will never make it work,' but we did. Perry Huston did good, we revised the code and it is not perfect but a work in progress and we are going to keep at it,” said DeTro. “It's a good business bringing in money, with $1 million for the jail. I've always been a property rights advocate, and that is part of what drives the comprehensive plan. Being in this county, a long time, I liked it a whole lot more when there were more cows than people. But infringements bring a lot of problems with it.”

Fuchs said he was not sure if regulations, but some of them need to be enforced.

“I had several people from Tonasket tell me they had failed cannabis farms and they left and left everything there. So, we would have to enforce the regulations in place to tell the landowner to clean it up,” said Fuchs. “Not just cannabis, but other things, like recycling. Halfway between Oroville and Ellisforde, there's all those appliances seeping into the groundwater. So, if we have regulations in place, they should be enforced.”

The Enloe Dam electrification project is controversial. As a commissioner, would you support a citizen's advisory referendum on this issue?

DeTro said Enloe Dam is indeed a controversial issue, and he would like to talk to a lot of his constituents before making a choice on it.

“We have the power line that bisects the county and use only 30 percent of it. We have an asset where that goes right to the Columbia, and the electricity out of Enloe Dam could go right down that power line,” said DeTro. “The financial burden is to tear the dam out. Regarding the fish, the Canadians said if you tear the dam out and send the fish up here we are going to kill the fish, we don't want them. Somewhere down the line was verbiage that said, 'No dam, no trail,' so if anyone has any clarity on that issue I would like to hear it.”

DeTro said with the dam, the county gets about $600,000 per year in privilege tax based on the volumetric generation of power, and federal dollars coming into the county as a result of powering up the dam.

“The two or three sides competing on that issue are not going to get on the same page anyway, so I would support the referendum,” said Fuchs. “Like Jim said, who knows what all is behind it? Either way it needs to be cleaned up. Who knows what it is and who knows where it goes.”

Bull said she thought she would support a referendum, but not just a local one but one at the state legislature.

“We are now spending $1.8 million in this first phase, so they're making 30 percent of the plans, which will be done this fall. Then they will have a firm idea what it will cost,” said Bull. “The first estimate is it will take 20 years before we get anything out of it. Removal of the silt needs to be addressed, what is behind it. I think money will come in to have it removed because that is happening across the country. I think it is a bad deal. I understand why Jim is for it, as he was chairman of the commissioners when they sent a letter to FERC to support the PUD's electrifying.”

Our local rural hospitals are a vital source of health care and employment for each of the cities in which they are situated. At the same time, they all have financial challenges for a number of reasons. What are your thoughts about how to address these issues?

Fuchs said the best way to address financial problems for the hospitals in our county is to work together.

“Tonasket and Brewster are working together now to share a CEO to get cost down. It's always easy to cut down on labor, but in a hospital, you don't want to do that at the lower level. But at the administrative level it sounds like a good idea. Without cutting labor but cutting costs, so if they work together to do more of that, it is a good idea.”

DeTro pointed out Okanogan County has three hospital districts, and some counties have just one.

“There's talk of merging Brewster and Tonasket, the discussion of one district for the three hospitals would eliminate CEOs and they would be able to share resources and buy stuff by the semi load and share,” said DeTro. “Everybody doesn't have to have an MRI machine, one could have it. Tonasket could be the main birthing hospital. It would require a little bit of travel, with an ER still in every hospital. But it's one way to cut costs.”

DeTro said the hospitals are all out of county warrants, so it's not a commissioner decision, and the county has warned hospitals not to treat it as a bank anymore.

“There are a lot of challenges to what is going on, and that is some of the issues floated out there. We left the RSN in Chelan county the year I came on, it was not working well. Then it went to Spokane and it went well,” said DeTro. “There are more unfunded regulations coming down the canyon.”

“We need to keep North Valley Hospital,” said Bull. “If you are in Molson, Chesaw or Havillah, it's quite a long time to travel if you have had a stroke. There is a 20-minute time window. I see Mid-Valley as the most dispensable, but people aren't going to like that. This nursing home is losing money every single day it has someone in there. If it could be separated from the hospital district, maybe it could make some money and not drain the district, but I'm not sure how that would work.”

What can the commissioners and the health department do to prepare for disasters such as disease outbreaks, fire, flood, drought and earthquake?

“We can fight fire and floods,” said DeTro. “All three commissioners are automatically de facto on the board of health and have contingency funds for high risk. We have an on-call guy come in and has money in reserve he can tap into anytime with no reserves on how he can use those funds. During the floods, Teagan (Tonasket City Council member Christa Teagan Levine) worked day and night for no pay. The action was taken locally by citizens. We applied for state funds and the governor said no.

I am on the wildland fire advisory committee, and asked DNR to send in a team and they did. But sometimes a team comes in and won't talk to local people and there's a clash with authority locally. This DNR team came in and it worked perfect.”

“I am always looking for ways to improve the situation and see that as one of the ways we can improve the situation. I went to a workshop this year called Fire, Flood and Mud. Trying to integrate those so we can get better use of funds.”

“The county's emergency service has a list where they can text you right away if something's going on you need to know about,” said Bull. “Neighbors and you that can help out, cohesive neighbors, people that work together. If you have the emergency number on your phone, that is the best way, so they can text you.”

“Regarding the citizen alert, I talked to Maurice, it works really well,” said Fuchs. “He said the national average is at 10 percent and we as a county are at 15 percent. We also need to work on national incident management training. We can talk to fire chiefs to make sure all management in the county take that training, so if we need help from another county, they know what to do. All the first responders and all the health workers, to make that system work.”

A question was presented from an audience member.

What do you think of nonpartisan standing for all county offices?

Bull said she thought it was the way to go for the county.

“It's political parties bringing in outside resources in the way of policies rather than the county making its own decisions, that's why I'm running as an independent.”

“Same for me,” said Fuchs. “Republicans have ideas that are good for the county, and other times democrats do. I want to make the best decision for the county as an independent, and not to work for any party. It's better to have independent commissioners so we are more flexible.”

DeTro said it was a novel idea.

“I sat beside a commissioner for two years before I knew he was a democrat, and he's a personal friend of mine,” said DeTro. “I call them liberals and conservatives. There are a lot of democrats that vote for me. And I'm not going to throw them under the bus. It would take a lot of tensions out of these elections. People would be voting for the person as they see fit for the positions.”

Another audience question was Occasionally there are controversial efforts to close roads used by the public.

DeTro said commissioners took the map of 1955 because the county roads administration board wanted them to update the road map.

“If it's not purged once in a while, we will have roads on it that are not used anymore, and others that are not listed,” said DeTro. “One road vacated is under litigation now. How do you vacate something you don't have?”

Fuchs said he didn't look into it, so he didn't have an opinion.

Bull said some roads connect from one place to another and to have people blocked off from safety and exit when a fire comes along is wrong.

“We need to look at what is at the other end of the road before we have it closed,” said Bull.

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