In a revelation that brought audible gasps from the crowd, White Salmon Mayor David Poucher made a startling announcement during the Dec. 5 meeting of the City Council: He said that, in 1999, Klickitat County had offered the city of White Salmon an Economic Development Authority (EDA) grant of $500,000 to go toward either paying for a new city swimming pool or refurbishing the existing one.
Instead of using the funds to upgrade the pool, however, the city's elected representatives decided to use the money for what they saw as a more urgent priority at that time -- fixing the city's water system.
"The city administration decided to put it into the well water project, and we lost that money," Poucher said. "This is the type of thing we've had to deal with. We're living with our past history."
With the aging city pool suffering from a long list of deficiencies -- including the need to fix a serious leak, replace the concrete deck of the pool, and putting a new roof on the pool building -- the City Council recently voted to ask the EDA for a grant of about $34,600 to fix the most serious problems with the pool.
Hearing about the diverted $500,000 surprised current council members. Some expressed concern that, given the past offer, the county might not want to grant the city's request for EDA funds to upgrade the swimming pool in 2008.
"The city of Goldendale took its $500,000 and in fact has a brand new pool," said City Council member Richard Marx. "We're dealing with the past administration's mistakes -- or ignorance. We're left holding an empty bag -- with deficits. The City Council has to deal with the sins of the past."
In an interview on Friday, Klickitat County Commissioner Don Struck confirmed that the county had been poised to provide a $500,000 grant from the county's landfill revenues for pool improvements or to help pay to build a new pool.
On Nov. 2, 1998, the Klickitat County Commissioners unanimously approved $500,000 "to be used for the actual construction of a new swimming pool or to improve or refurbish any existing pool," read an excerpt of the agreement approved by the commissioners.
According to Struck, the county had invited the cities of Goldendale and White Salmon to identify a major expenditure they couldn't afford on their own. Both cities identified their pool as a project that would benefit the most people.
"We appropriated $500,000 each for Goldendale and White Salmon to go toward pool improvements or for a new pool," Struck said. "Then, when White Salmon's water issues started popping up, we suggested converting the pool money to go to pay for water issues. It was an emergency situation, and I thought it was a good decision by the city."
According to Glen Chipman, chief financial officer for Klickitat County, the 1999 county budget included $500,000 for the White Salmon pool, as well as another $500,000 for the Goldendale city pool. Another $300,000 was given to a joint water project to link Bingen, White Salmon, and the Port of Klickitat.
"At White Salmon's request, the County Commissioners changed the $500,000 for a pool to a west end water system and bumped the amount to $700,000 for the 2000 budget," Chipman explained. "Payments were made in 1999 for the initial $300,000 joint project and $700,000 on 2000 for the west end water system. The 2000 report shows the $700,000 being spent and the pool allocation is gone."
"To set the record straight, I initiated the discussion," Struck explained. "The county never had a problem with the city using the money for the water system. The county was fully supportive of that."
In all, the county provided about $1.55 million in grants to help get White Salmon's water system upgraded. Most of the money went to the city's well field project and the water transmission pipeline.
A resolution passed by the White Salmon City Council on Oct. 6, 1999, indicates that city officials believed they were dealing with an emergency, and as a result were willing to move the pool money into fixing the city's overall water system.
The resolution passed by the City Council reads in part: "Whereas the city of White Salmon takes its domestic water supply from the Buck Creek watershed, a water source recently found to be contained with disease-causing microorganism ... (and) that the Klickitat County Board of Commissioners has previously approved a $500,000 grant for the development of the White Salmon swimming pool construction project that to date does not have adequate support of local taxpayers for the remaining necessary project construction funds ... be it resolved that the City Council of the city of White Salmon requests that the Klickitat County Board of Commissioners approve and authorize the reassignment of the $500,000 swimming pool construction fund ... to be used for the construction of water improvement projects."
After that vote, then-Mayor Roger Holen followed up with a formal request to the county to make the switch.
Struck said the county was open to the reallocation, with one condition: "The first thing [County Commissioner] Ray Thayer said was, `OK, but don't come back and ask us for any pool money later on,'" Struck recalled.
Struck pointed out that the use of the grant money to pay for multi-jurisdictional water infrastructure improvements was never an issue at the county level.
"It's not a controversy, other than the fact that the county was called on the carpet recently for not supporting the pool," Struck said.
Struck was referring to a claim by Shirley Cox, current chair of the White Salmon Budget Committee, who publicly complained about the county's lack of support for the pool during a City Council meeting in November.
"The county needs to subsidize the pool," Cox said at the Nov. 7 meeting. "We're entitled to a whole lot more than the county is giving us."
Struck said that charge was unfair.
"For Shirley Cox to say we turned our back on the city pool was a real slap in the face," Struck said. "The county did step up -- big time. The city needed money for its water system, and they made the decision to put the money into that instead."
Holen, White Salmon's mayor at the time, said he could not recall all the details of why and how the decision to move the funds came about back in 1999.
"I really don't remember it all that well," Holen said in a Monday interview. "I do recall that when Goldendale was asking the county for funds for a pool, the county said, `we'll give White Salmon the same amount.' I also recall we did extensive work on the pool around that time."
Holen further pointed out that the City Council makes the decisions on matters such as this, not the mayor.
"Whatever was done was via City Council action. That's the only way it can be done," Holen said. "But it's far enough in the past that I don't remember any of the specific details without going back and looking through the minutes of those meetings."
Holen added that in the late 1990s, the city was applying for grants wherever they could find them in the effort to upgrade White Salmon's water system and get the "boil water" problems fixed.
"We were juggling money from all kinds of different sources," Holen said.
Despite the controversy, however, Struck made clear last week that -- given the passage of so many years -- he sees no reason why the county would not support the city's 2008 EDA request for funds to repair and upgrade White Salmon's swimming pool.
"I expect the EDA in January will support the city's request for pool money," Struck said.