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Once-obscure political race in Moses Lake takes on new import for area's economy

The political struggle in Moses Lake over the cost and management of its irrigation district is a microcosm of the conflict going on in cities, towns and taxing districts across the country between supporters of growth and progress, and those who seek to constrain government and contain spending

 

But because major companies have begun to focus attention on the area due to things like transportation access, cheap electric rates and low property costs, economic development opportunities are now on the minds of community leaders. Thus the obscure political contest has taken on new importance for the region's 45,000 residents.

 

The climax of the battle for the political affections of the owners of the 9,000 parcels of property in the Moses Lake Irrigation and Reclamation District has become, for the past couple of years, the ironically timed Christmas-season election for a seat on the district's three-member board.

 

The annual mid-December election had drawn little attention, despite the importance of the district's work in the clean-up of the 6,500-acre lake, until a year ago when two prominent local political types ran against each other to claim an open seat.

 

Ron Covey, 64, Moses Lake city councilman for 14 years, including six as mayor, sought to fill the seat to ensure continuation of the district's dredging and environmental clean-up, and the $1 per $1,000 property tax to fund the irrigation district's $1.5 million annual budget. Covey is also the current president of the Grant County Economic Development Council.

 

Mick Hansen, 71, a former Democratic state representative whose uncle and aunt were both state senators from the region, sought the board seat, arguing that the property-tax could be cut in half and questioned the importance of some of the clean-up projects.

 

The outcome of the race was important to the future of the district because if Covey won, as he did, barely, in a race where the approximately 11,000 votes cast represented a turnout about 10 times the norm, it would ensure a 2-1 majority supportive of current district funding and direction.

 

The election-night results gave Covey a 61-39 percent edge. But that majority had shrunk to 2 percent by the time absentee ballots, assumed to have been largely retirees wintering elsewhere or elderly residents, were counted.

 

A Hansen victory would have created a board majority focused on a hard look at both the board's direction and the operations of its full-time director, hired in 2007, and the staff.

Hansen is running again this year, challenging an incumbent board member.

 

The evidence of no love lost between Covey and Hansen was Columbia Basin Herald business reporter Lynne Lynch's quote of Covey during an appearance in last year's race, when he said he would not "cut the budget and gut the lake." He also suggested Hansen would bring "arrogant, ill-conceived good ole boy ideas."

 

The district's activities focus on the environmental challenges the lake has faced. More than 50,000 cubic yards of sediment accumulation annually have clogged channels on the lake, degraded water quality and led to excess plant growth, which district clean-up and dredging efforts have sought to counteract.

 

Now Moses Lake and surrounding Grant County have begun to attract economic-development attention from after almost half a century of struggling to survive and grow following the early '60s closure of Larson Air Force Base, which had been the justification for the community's existence.

 

And that increased attention has brought considerable focus on the lake itself as part of the appeal of the area to real and prospective new residents and businesses.

 

The new-found attention has included BMW, lured to Moses Lake by low-cost and sustainable power, to create a new plant in a joint venture with SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers where parts for the automaker's new high-tech electric car will be manufactured. Plus nearby Quincy has attracted datacenter developments, including Microsoft's new, fully modular center, as well as other like Yahoo and Sabey Corp.

 

Inexpensive power is a key lure. But former Washington Gov. Mike Lowry, who has both business and non-profit involvements in the Moses Lake area, sees "a lot of positive business factors at work" in the area,

 

"From foreign-trade zone, to all modes of transportation, and low electric rates, relatively low property costs, good workforce and good regulatory climate in the local government, there's real economy-development appeal at work there," Lowry said, adding that the lake itself is a vital aspect of the region's appeal.

 

Pat Jones, new executive director of the Port of Moses Lake, puts it this way: "The lake is an important part of the community at a lot of different levels."

 

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