Henry Heimuller is stepping into his new role as chair for the Columbia County Board of Commissioners.
Heimuller was elected chair Wednesday, Jan. 5, following a vote by Heimuller, Margaret Magruder and Casey Garrett, the three board of commission members.
In a one-on-one interview with The Chronicle, Heimuller outlined what he and the board would like to focus efforts on going into 2022.
Relocation court services to the historic 100-year-old John Gumm Building, already underway, is one top priority.
Columbia County purchased the Gumm building in April for $1.5 million. The 100-year-old building served as a school from September of 1919 until December of 1999.
The end goal, Heimuller explained, is to have buildings designated for a specific purpose and to expand the capabilities of the Columbia County Public Health (CCPH) department as the county grapples with a new variant of the COVID-19 virus.
“We literally had employees working out of our cars,” he said, in reference to CCPH’s mobilization of COVID-19 resources. “We didn’t have room for anything.”
In late December, the county’s Land Development Services moved from the Columbia County Courthouse Annex on 230 Strand Street to Port Business Center at 445 Port Avenue, a temporary relocation site to make room for more public health personnel as the Gumm building awaits renovations.
Once the renovations are complete, Heimuller said the county will move its administrative services and the board of commissioners to the new building.
Heimuller said he believes such a change will ultimately be a cost-saving measure, since buying a new court building altogether would require taxpayer money.
“The state funds part of it, but they only fund half, and it was going to be about a $15 or $16 million project, which would have meant we would have had to go out to the taxpayers and try to get them to bond $20 to $30 million to build it,” Heimuller said.
Another board goal is to tap into the county’s natural resources and buy Prescott Beach from Portland General Electric (PGE).
Prescott Beach, situated between Rainier and Goble, features volleyball courts, horseshoe pits, picnic areas, offering a host of summertime recreational activities.
“It’s beautiful. It’s right on the Columbia River. It’s just gorgeous,” Heimuller said.
Heimuller said the land used to be adjacent to the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant.
“We can’t get grants to improve it unless we get a long-term lease on it,” he said.
Heimuller also said the area is suited to provide fishing, hiking, and biking opportunities.
Heimuller revealed he is working with state partners to tie the Salmonberry Trail to the Banks-Linear Trail, which he said will stretch from Highway 47 to Tillamook County, creating 180 miles of trail for recreational use.
He suggested Salmonberry Lake as a possible location for an ATV park, which he said would attract more people to the area by virtue of more expansive activities.
Fostering recreational opportunities is a central focus of Heimuller’s because according to a figure he cited, 70% of Columbia County residents commute and are therefore drawn away from the county for two or more hours of the day.
Fixing the overburdened septic system in Prescott has been at the top of Heimuller’s list for some time.
“There’s sometimes five houses on one septic tank,” he said. “There are places where septic effluent is above the ground and it’s dangerous. It’s not right.”
Heimuller said the problem is so dire, no one can build a house in Prescott because the building requires a septic permit.
“What we’re going to do, assuming that we’re going to be able to buy the property from PGE, is we’re going to build a septic water treatment plant,” he said.
The biggest challenge to public health, however, goes beyond failing septic systems.
With exploding COVID-19 case rates and the introduction of a new variant, Heimuller, while a staunch defender of personal choice, contends now is the time to double down in light of new advisories from the Oregon Health Authority.
“The county has all the responsibility,” he said. “We have the responsibility for public health, we have the responsibility to coordinate vaccine clinics. So that coordination has to happen at the county level.”
“When you talk about our biggest challenge, the challenge is the variants — the things we don’t know about,” he added.
During the Columbia County Board of Commissioners Jan. 5 meeting, the board voted to extend the county’s Declaration of State of Emergency for COVID-19.
According to Heimuller, the county has to be in a state of emergency to qualify for state and federal COVID-19 relief. With resources already stretched thin, that move is more than necessary.
“We continue hiring personnel, we continue making ourselves ready and available to accept federal and state funding to provide those services that we feel all of our citizens deserve,” he said.
Columbia County has also partnered with the Oregon Health Authority to offer fee drive-through COVID-19 vaccinations and booster shot clinics from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. this week at the county fairgrounds, 58892 Saulser Road, in St. Helens this week.
Jobs and the economy
Heimuller said he takes pride in Scappoose’s Oregon Manufacturing Innovation Center (OMIC) and sees the center as a game-changer for the county.
OMIC, an apprenticeship program for Portland Community College students, seeks to combine applied research and development and workforce training to serve the region’s advanced manufacturers and create economic mobility, according to the OMIC website.
“The goal is in those programs to go in, find students when they’re in middle school and start figuring out those kids that want to do things with computers and robots,” Heimuller said. “What (the companies) are doing is building their own workforce.”
The Chronicle asked Heimuller how commissioners plan to strike a balance between the preservation of tight-knit, community values and industrial and economic growth.
A possible solution, Heimuller surmised, would be to bring jobs into Columbia County tied to corporate sponsors supportive of community interests, such as jobs in manufacturing.
“Do we want everything that comes in to be here? Probably not,” he said. “But do we want good, energy efficient, high job, high wage paying businesses to come here who are good corporate sponsors, who are not afraid to support the schools, the fair and baseball teams? Yeah.”
The Columbia County Board of Commissioners are elected and serve four-year terms.
Under county policy, the current commissioners Heimuller, Magruder, and Garrett rotate positions of chair, vice-chair, and budget officer, giving each commissioner the opportunity to perform different functions of the board.
Heimuller has been appointed chair several times over the years. In his previous term he served as budget officer, with Magruder as chair.
Garrett, elected to the board last year, has yet to become board chair.
The board oversees public safety, economic development, land preservation, and roads and transportation in Columbia County.
The Columbia County Board of Commissioners holds regular Wednesday meetings at 10 a.m. To reach the commissioners, call (503) 397-4322.