(From For the Record, Wednesday, August 21, 1996): Richard M. Dougherty, a Republican candidate for Whitman County commissioner, has raised $2,650 for the campaign. A story in Tuesday’s Spokesman-Review reported an incorrect amount.
Saying county finances are a mess and that most people don’t understand what county government is doing, six challengers are gunning for the seats held by two Whitman County commissioners.
The challengers - most of them businessmen - say the commissioners are unwisely spending rainy day money in the county’s “reserve accounts,” leaving taxpayers vulnerable.
“If you’re running the store, you had best know what’s going on in that store,” said Pullman City Councilman Richard M. Dougherty.
But Commissioner Nora Mae Keifer, who with fellow incumbent Republican Jim Potts is running for re-election, said the county’s budget problems are greatly overstated. She said the county has nearly $4 million in reserves, although the money is dedicated to specific projects, like roads.
“The county is on good ground,” she said. “We do not have any longterm debt.”
She acknowledged the county has had to borrow money this year to make its payroll. But she blames the county assessor’s office, which she said has let assessments lag far behind true values, reducing potential tax revenue.
“That’s where the problem lies,” she said.
The two incumbents and the six challengers will face off at the Sept. 17 primary election, when voters will pare the list to four. Terms last four years and pay $38,556.
Potts, 60, a Republican farmer from Lamont, was elected four years ago, and has been commission chairman for the past three. His district includes part of Pullman and northern Whitman County. If re-elected, he said, he’ll step down after his second term. He spent $12,439 on the 1992 race, and has spent about $1,000 so far this year.
A longtime fire commissioner and third-generation county resident, Potts said the county needs to seek grants to help pay for services. He said he wants to improve county roads and dedicate more money to stopping crime.
Challenging Potts from his own party is Hollis Jamison, another Republican farmer. Jamison has also criticized the county for imprudent budgeting, especially borrowing money to pay bills. Unlike the other candidates, Jamison has not filed any campaign finance reports with Whitman County.
Two Democrats are also running for Potts’ seat.
Steve McGehee, 48, of Palouse, owns a classic auto parts business. He ran unsuccessfully for state representative in 1992, losing in the primary by 97 votes. A California native, he has lived on the Palouse since 1973. He’s served eight years on the Palouse City Council.
The county’s not budgeting for the long term, he said. By the time county budgets reach the public hearing stage, the numbers are pretty much set, he said, and the budget itself is virtually unreadable to a layman. He wants to form a citizens’ oversight committee to ride herd on the budget and encourage public input from the start.
McGehee, who’s been financing his own campaign, spent $1,000 to publish a book of political columns. “I feel it’s important that people know where I’m coming from,” he said.
He’ll face off in the Democratic primary against Roger McKeirnan, 40, a Pullman Realtor. A lifelong county resident, he’s served as a fire district commissioner for seven years.
He said he’d like to see Whitman County’s growth steered toward Moscow, Idaho, eight miles away. He also wants to slow county government growth and help build up the county’s rainy day funds.
Other than the $385 filing fee, McKeirnan by early August had spent only $17.70 on the race.
The other seat up for election this year is held by Republican Nora Mae Keifer, 62, now serving her second term.
A longtime social service volunteer and lifelong Whitman Count resident, Keifer ran a clothing store in Pullman for 12 years. Her district includes most of Pullman and the Colton area.
“I’m dedicated to the job, and give the time and energy to do it,” she said. “It’s not just a taking-care-of-the-roads job.”
The county budget has taken some hits, she said, losing nearly $400,000 in federal money 10 years ago. Grants are also getting tougher to win, she said.
The reason the county borrowed money to make payroll, she said, was specifically because officials didn’t want to tap reserve funds. August and September are typically low cash months also, she said, since property taxes don’t start rolling in until October.
According to Keifer’s campaign finance forms, she’s raised $4,540 for the race so far and spent $1,139.
Challenging her in the Republican primary is Dougherty, the Pullman city councilman and a registered nurse. He said he thinks short-term budgeting and political squabbling make Potter and Keifer ineffective.
“They have become so inwardly focused on infighting that they lack focus on the broad picture,” he said.
Dougherty, 46, came to the Palouse in 1981 from San Diego. He’s served on the council for 11 years.
Pullman, he said, has a $2 million reserve fund in case tax revenues shrink. He thinks the county should have a similar “undedicated” fund available for any emergency.
Dougherty’s raised $42,650 and spent $2,218 on the race.
Two Democrats are also seeking Keifer’s seat in the primary.
Dan Antoni, 42, of Pullman, is a real estate broker and former restaurant owner and schoolteacher. He moved to Pullman in 1977 from his hometown of Portland.
“I’m very disappointed in how our county government is being run,” he said. “It should be run like a business.”
Antoni said he doesn’t believe the county has $4 million in dedicated reserve funds. Officials, he claimed, are “cooking the books.”
Antoni said the county must accommodate growth, so potential taxpayers don’t have to move to Latah County.
Antoni will face fellow Democrat Charlie Russell in the primary.
Russell, 53, of Colton, is a Seattle native who came to Pullman in 1964. He’s worked as a ranch hand and teacher. For the past seven years, he’s owned his own environmental and financial consulting firm, doing work in South America. His experience writing project proposals and assessing projects make him well-qualified for the job, he said.
Russell said he decided to run after being told he couldn’t get some information about the county budget.
To make county decisions more accessible, he’d push for a county 800 number, electronic mail and night meetings.
“Holding it (a meeting) during the workday just doesn’t strike me as reasonable,” he said. “If you’re a schoolteacher or truck driver, you just can’t go to them.”
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