County wind farms harvest mixed views
It could become the archetypal image of the new American rural landscape: cows, crops-and wind towers.
There are those who feel the combination of old-time agriculture and cutting-edge wind farms is as rustic as you can get, mixing ancient methods of harvesting the land with modern methods of harvesting the wind. On the other hand, the windmill of today looks nothing like what Don Quixote once attacked; and there are some who contend that the modern wind farm is, in fact, quixotic. One dictionary defines that as foolishly impractical, especially in the pursuit of ideals.
The conflicting viewpoints converge in Klickitat County, hardly surprising given the advance of wind towers crawling forward across the landscape.
Why the controversy? On the face of it, there wouldn't seem to be a downside energy-wise: wind farms consume no energy, they produce no pollution, and the energy it takes to produce a wind farm is made up within months of its operation. It's true that wind towers have been known to interfere with bird and bat populations, though most studies indicate that the impact is not significant. So what's the problem?
"Wind towers were great when they were somewhere else," says Klickitat County Director of Economic Development Michael Canon. "But when people see them more closely, there's an aesthetic reaction. They see them more than they thought they would."
It's sometimes called the NIMBY effect: Not In My Back Yard. The term is most often used regarding developments, but it means a reaction to something that is suddenly in one's face. It's described in some reports from other parts of the country where wind farms are going up as the sudden awareness of the enormity of the towers, up close and apparently much too personal. Some adverse reaction has come from almost every part of the corner where wind farms are going up. Such response has been occasioned in California, where some pockets of the state are peppered with towers. "Look at the size of that thing!" is how it was expressed by one California resident who found herself gazing at a tower from within feet of it. "And it's so close!"
At a distance, what seem to be quaint little whirly things come across as picturesque and novel. But when they loom large enough to fill one's window, all charm can be lost in an instant.
On the other hand, wind tower blades are turning wind into more than just energy. They also generate dollars. Wind farms are economically hot these days. Their increasing presence in Klickitat County is directly proportional to the revenues they are capable of producing.
"You absolutely do see an economic impact in the county from wind farms," Canon says, "and you can measure it right now, in Bickleton, because the wind farms have been there longer, so they're starting to get some of the property tax revenue there.
It takes a while to build a wind farm, and it takes a whole year before that property tax revenue begins to be collected.
"Last year in Bickleton, revenues generated provided about $28,000 for the fire district. There are only one or two wind farms in Bickleton now on the tax rolls, but so far this year tax revenues from those farms generated $124,000 for that fire district. It went from $28,000 to $124,000 in one year. And other fire districts will have the same benefit as Bickleton with the windmills on land that their district covers."
It's just such dramatic revenue jumps that make wind farms so economically attractive. That's especially true for the owners of land on which the towers are built, who can get upwards of $3,000 per month per tower. Most residents are more interested in the benefit to the county at large, especially those whose aesthetic sensibilities are challenged by the towers.
The benefits are there, according to figures from county sources. "The real revenue is just beginning to be felt," Canon reiterates. "It goes to the fire districts, the schools. Libraries get a small amount of that. Hospitals get a portion. All of these get a part of that tax revenue. All of those directly benefit local citizens."
As well, local businesses see significant impact. Area restaurants are putting plates in front of a lot of new faces, workers in town with the large crews brought in for construction of towers. Motels are full. The market for house and apartment rentals around Goldendale is fiercely competitive, with some newcomers taking homes sight-unseen just to ensure they have a place to live.
A shortage of housing could be a limiting factor if the county's hope for generating new jobs to support the burgeoning wind farm industry comes true. The county's infrastructure is already sound enough to accommodate the traffic and transport needs for manufacturers of the huge wind tower components, county officials say. But it would have to scramble to provide sufficient housing. "The steps to fix that would be taken very quickly," Canon says. He is working on drawing such large manufacturers to the county-to the old aluminum plant that once employed numerous Goldendale residents, if he can help it. The plant has been regularly maintained over the years since it closed by its owners, and some work has been done to make it more attractive to manufacturers of large machinery.
The windmills also require regular servicing, and Canon sees a support work force that could develop in the area for that. "Typically, the windmills are under a two- or three-year warranty," he points out. "When those warranties come off, owners are going to want to have local service on them, particularly on the smaller tasks where it doesn't make sense to bring in a foreign company. Wind farms across the country are starting to see quite a support industry come up around them. We're hoping to eventually have a regional service center that will service not only Klickitat County but also the five counties in the region that are trying to develop renewable energy." Those counties, which have formed the Columbia Gorge Bi-State Renewable Energy Zone, are Klickitat and Skamania counties in Washington, and Hood River, Wasco, and Sherman counties in Oregon.
"There is an amazing variety of jobs with wind farms," Canon says, adding that to do them requires specialized education. Columbia Gorge Community College provides windmill technician training, and the college has earned a regard as one of the most prominent colleges in the country for windmill technician training.
Those who prognosticate on such matters see nothing but plenty of good reasons for businesses to come to Klickitat County and work with the wind farms. Canon can count 10 of them-actually, the top 10 reasons not to locate in the county. They include "Clean air smells weird," "You don't like a skilled and educated work force with a strong work ethic," and "If your company becomes too successful you might have to give interviews." The list of reasons is on a flyer Canon uses at renewable energy trade shows.
Some of the voices most critical of wind farms come from people who are concerned that they will disrupt or bring an end to the agricultural base of the county. Historically, in states with existing wind farms, that has been the case. The overwhelming majority of agricultural areas with wind farms have maintained their agrarian way of life, with crops and livestock easily interfacing with the huge towers. Moreover, there are signs that agriculture is substantially enhanced by the increased income available to farmers and ranchers.
"With the income these people will be able to get from wind towers on their property," Canon points out, "they'll have the money to drill water wells that they may not have been able to afford before, for one thing. Most of them I think will stay in agriculture. When you've been farming land for generations, you don't suddenly quit because you've got a little extra money. You do even better farming than you did before because you can afford to do more things."
The last primary criticism leveled at the farms is that they can obscure scenic viewpoints or, more significantly to indigenous peoples, contaminate locations with deep historic or cultural value. Such an incident has brought rancor among the Yakama nation for damage they claim was done to one of their culturally significant sites on the Windy Flats wind farm. And Gary Takahashi at the Maryhill Orchards and Vineyards wants to be sure no tower obscures the eternal rest of Sam Hill in front of his gravesite. Virtually everyone in the county agrees that those factors, in the end, become places where minds as well as money will have to meet.
School cuts may change
The Goldendale school board has decided upon $567,900 in cuts to address reduced state funding and loss of students over the next two years. But, following a large turnout of supporters of the High School soccer program at the Monday night school board meeting, those plans may not be set in stone, just yet.
The soccer supporters came to appeal for a reprieve of the girls and boys soccer programs which are slated for elimination in the current plan. The board heard presentations from parents, coaches and a player, all speaking to the value of the program and desire to help find some other options to total program elimination.
Conner Harris, a senior co-captain of the boys' soccer team asked for a shared reduction approach and pointed out that, for many students, it is the only sport in which they participate.
Coach Jimmy Dick suggested that it is a false notion that cutting the sport saves money. "It brings in students who wouldn't be here otherwise," said Dick. He used two Bickleton students and foreign exchange students as examples. The projected savings by cutting the sport is $19,000 and the state support for two students is $20,000, said Dick.
Others spoke of raising funds within the community and even the prospect of keeping the sport as an activity, rather than a sport if it had to be cut from the budget, essentially requiring the program to become self supporting.
The board heard the comments and said they would consider the comments as they finalize the budget. An executive meeting for that purpose will be held Tuesday at 6 p.m. in the administration building.
The issue of the budget is not confined to Goldendale. Deborah Heart, WSSDA vice president and school principals and athletic director Lee Eikanas said all schools are dealing with the same issues that are the result of the $9 billion projected shortfall in revenue for the State over the next two years. The final budget from the legislature showed a cut of $1.17 million in state aid for Goldendale schools. The legislature used federal stimulus funds to reduce Goldendale's cut to $395,000 for the two-year cycle which begins July 1. However, that figure is assuming no change in student numbers, which is a faulty assumption at Goldendale. The School Board is projecting enrollment to continue to decline, as it has over the past several years. There are currently 995 students at Goldendale, down 19 from the beginning of the school year. In anticipation of continued decline, the board added $100,000 to the expected loss, for a total expected reduction of $495,000.
The board is choosing to budget for a $567,900 cut which includes $72,900 of cushion above the projected budget shortfall. The budget will become more certain in early June as the State numbers are finalized. Once the actual number is known, items will be returned to the budget based on a prioritization set by the board. Prior to Monday's board meeting, the top priority was restoring $20,000 for sports official costs, which otherwise will be shifted to the ASB. That item is the top priority because ASB funds were not intended to be used to fund officials. Second on the priority list is rehiring as many of the seven paraeducators who are slated for reduction in force (RIF), as possible.
According to Superintendent Mark Heid, "our goal is to get by with only three or four cuts." Heid said the other items on the cut list have not been prioritized for restoration because the top two priorities account for more money than is likely to be restored.
Among the proposed cuts is a voluntary $5,000 reduction of the superintendent's salary. "You can't ask others to take cuts if you aren't willing to take a cut," said Heid. "Our principals and vice-principal are working hard and we don't need to look there."
Dance, which was added this past fall, is the only other sport that will be cut, and that will be a partial cut. The sport has fall and winter seasons. The fall season will be eliminated for a savings of $3,300. Next to the paraeducator cuts, the next biggest item for savings comes in the retirement of Marcie Williams and Candy McCredy, a savings of $160,000. Their duties will be covered by current faculty. There will also be one teacher RIF from the HOSTS program.
Heid expects more cuts at the conclusion of this two-year cycle, pointing out that about $775,000 of state aid is coming from the federal stimulus package which won't likely be available in two years. Heid also projects further reduction in students, which should bottom out in another three or four years at 940 students.
For the meantime, soccer is still on the chopping block. The decision cannot be delayed much longer, particularly as it pertains to sports. SCAC athletic directors are meeting this week to work on fall and winter schedules. "The other schools want to know if we are going to have soccer on their schedule or not," said Eikanas. The families and players are also waiting for that final decision. Unless priorities change following Monday's meeting, soccer is unlikely to continue as a school funded sport, but it may find another way to survive.
Total cuts include:
Cost of sports officials - will be picked up by ASB: savings $20,000
Drop boys and girls soccer: savings $19,000
Drop one of two seasons for dance team: savings $3,300
Don't fill two retiring positions: savings $160,000
Reduction in High School remedial math, cover with reassignment: savings $30,000
Maintenance seasonal mowing job: savings $29,000
Postpone curriculum adoption for social studies and reading: savings $70,000
Postpone security cameras for Middle School: savings $26,000
Eliminate home school liaison position: savings $2,300
Reduce on-line education classes: savings $20,000
Hosts reduction in math: savings $30,000
Eliminate seven paraeducators: savings $153,300
Superintendent salary reduction: savings $5,000
Total reduction: $567,900
Parks, licensing office to withstand state budget cuts
Washington state doesn't have a revenue problem. It just has trouble controlling its spending.
But as it searches for ways to keep its hands out of its own wallet, the good news is that the state has decided that closing state parks will not constitute a savings significant enough to warrant closing them, so Maryhill and Brooks State Parks are staying open. As well, the Goldendale Driver Licensing office stays.
These were among the key findings shared at a luncheon meeting Monday, when Washington's 15th Legislative District's elected officials gathered to address a large turnout. The meeting was organized by the Greater Goldendale Area Chamber of Commerce, as part of its ongoing Chamber Forum lunches.
Addressing the meeting were Klickitat County Commissioner Rex Johnston, State Senator Jim Honeyford, State Representative Bruce Chandler, and newly appointed State Representative David Taylor.
"$300 million will be collected in Washington revenue this year more than last year," Rep. Chandler stated. "That's the highest revenue ever. But they keep talking about a $9 billion deficit. The deficit does not reflect a decrease in revenue. The deficit is the difference between reality and what's expected."
Rep. Taylor agreed. "We don't really have a revenue problem in Washington," he told the gathering. "Yet we're spending. One of our concerns is that in the new budget, cuts include a 46 percent reduction for education and health care."
The reduction in health care has a relatively minor affect in Klickitat County, where the cuts translate into a reduction of about $100,000 for the Klickitat Hospital District.
Despite the challenges of the current economy, Rep. Chandler told the group, "We're better positioned than any other state in the union to weather this recession."
The current state budget was hurriedly put through the legislature, according to Sen. Honeyford. "We had less than 18 hours to review a 516-page document, the new budget," he said. "There's no way you can adequately go through a document that size in that amount of time.
"The Golden Rule is alive and well in Olympia," he added. "He who has the gold rules."
Sen. Honeyford identified a number of proposed laws that were defeated in recent legislature activity. "We defeated some green building laws that would tell you how to build your house," he said. "There are other, better ways to conserve energy."
Another controversial bill came up that would have allowed employees to sue their companies if they attended a company meeting at which religion and politics were discussed. The bill was not passed.
Other pressing issues discussed were gas taxes to cover road construction, described by Rep. Chandler as entirely inadequate. "For one thing, they're based on volume, not on price," he said. "And roads today are more expensive to build. We need a more efficient way to pay for roads."
Announcements were made at the meeting about the lifting of a moratorium on special-design license plates and the fact Washington State University (WSU) would maintain extensions in all 39 Washington counties. All WSU Learning Centers, however, will close.
Commissioner Johnston yielded most of his time to the guest speakers, but advised the meeting that he was available for discussion.