What to do when you lose one-third of your budget and have no prospect of getting it back?
That’s the dilemma facing the Columbia River Gorge Commission, which took a $360,000 hit on its $1.1 million annual budget this year – and expects at least an equivalent cut next year from cash-strapped Washington and Oregon.
Because the bistate panel was chartered by Congress to implement federal law but gets its operating funds from the two states that have land within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, it faces an unusual situation at budget time. Adding another twist, the 1986 act that created the scenic area specifies that each state must contribute precisely the same level of funding. In practice, that means the deeper cut is the one that counts.
With few options, the panel voted last week to approach Congress and ask it to pay up for money the scenic area is owed – about $1.8 million in economic development funds and $5.5 million in recreation planning dollars that were authorized in the Scenic Area Act but never appropriated.
In addition, it wants enough funding to continue with what the commission and executive director Jill Arens regard as the most important project they have undertaken, a status-of-the-scenic-area review known as the Vital Signs Indicator Project.
“Vital Signs is the most important thing that the commission needs in order to evaluate how well the Scenic Area Act has been implemented,” Arens said. “For those things within our control, we want to know what strategies have worked and what hasn’t. Have we made decisions that had a negative impact? We need to gather enough information so we can say this is what the measures tell us before our next plan review.”
The commission’s staff has dropped from 10 full-time positions to the equivalent of 7.5 in the past 18 months, and more budget cuts are coming, she said.
“Both states are telling folks now that there may be additional cuts. We are mainly looking to Washington, because their (revenue) forecasts are the ones that are the most severe.”
So far, the commission hasn’t had to cut essential programs, but without federal help, that may soon be necessary, Arens said. “What it has forced us to do is look at efficiencies. We have completely redone our procedures to make sure we aren’t duplicating efforts. … We don’t want to cut customer service; we don’t want our deadlines to pass in terms of development review.”
The commission also must work closely with county planners, enforce compliance with the Gorge management plan, which limits development in all six counties that have land in the scenic area, and carry out basic administrative and legal functions.
But with a 33 percent budget cut, Arens said, “it would be very difficult for me to say we are performing our requirements in a statutory way.”
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