Commissioners consider Johnson House sale

IT, Oneida Road also discussed


January 10, 2019

Wahkiakum County commissioners stepped back from selling a house in Cathlamet and explored issues regarding burgeoning technology costs when they met Tuesday.

In a public hearing about the board's proposal to declare the Johnson House surplus and put it up for sale, commissioners heard comments that caused them to reconsider the sale.

The house had been used by Health and Human Services until the county acquired the former United Church of Christ building, now called the Hope House. Commissioners had suggested the county would be better off to sell the house, thereby ending maintenance costs and putting it back on the property tax rolls.

However, Assessor Bill Coons commented that the house still might have value for the county as a rental property. He pointed out that it is difficult for new county employees to find housing and move into the community. Further, the house is inside the town limits, and most of its property tax would go to the Town of Cathlamet. Roughly $450 would go annually to the county in taxes, while a $1,000 monthly rent would generated $12,000 per year.

Sheriff Mark Howie supported Coons's comments and suggested the county consider long term needs. The county already owns the property and an adjacent property, and they are there for possible future expansion. The Johnson House property would be very expensive if the county needed it in the future.

"Take a second look," he said. "The property is in your hands now; it's not worth the few bucks that would be gone in two years."

Other speakers commented on the need for strategic thinking and possible uses of the property.

Commissioner Cothren acknowledged he has pressed for the sale of the house. Maintenance costs for older county properties are tremendous, he said.

However, the speakers had made some good points, he said.

Newly seated Commissioner Gene Strong agreed. He said he would like to know the financial feasibility of keeping the house.

"I'm a firm believer that you shouldn't sell something you'll need to buy later," said Commissioner Mike Backman, adding that rental money could pay for improvements.

"I'd like to keep it and find out the cost of getting it ready to rent," Backman said.

"I agree," Strong said. "We need more information to make an informed decision."

With that, Cothren said the issue should be set aside so that staff can provide a financial analysis.

In other business, commissioners and department heads met with information technology specialist Josh Holt to discuss pros and cons of renewing a contract for IT support at a much higher rate.

Holt said there are several reasons for the big increase. First, the technology field is booming, so the employment market is very tight, and if the county were to hire IT personnel, the county's salaries would be well below what people can earn elsewhere. Next, if the county were to enlarge its IT staff, new employees would likely be union employees, who would be paid overtime or doubletime when called out at off hours. Further, the contractor has a larger staff who could respond faster than a smaller county staff.

Also, Health and Human Services Executive Director Bischoff said that Cowlitz County, his former employer, had its own IT staff, and service was slow, much slower than in Wahkiakum because staff couldn't keep up with service needs.

Discussion continued; the board took no action; the contract renewal will appear on a future agenda.

Commissioners heard a plea from Westend residents to improve Oneida Road.

The narrow road has long stretches that are too narrow for vehicles to pass, said resident Corbett McMasters, and over a 1.3 mile distance, there is only one safe turnout to allow vehicles to pass. Other turnouts are overgrown but could be restored with a few loads of rock, he said.

Commissioners said they were aware of the situation, and Public Works Director Chuck Beyer said the road crew will work on the shoulders next summer.

The narrow county road doesn't meet the standards required of private roads, McMaster commented. A vehicle encountering a large vehicle such as a school bus may have to back up as much as three-quarters of a mile, he said.

"We can do the turnouts," said commission Chair Dan Cothren.

"Yes," agreed newly seated Commissioner Gene Strong. "Turnouts now; shoulders when the weather allows."


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