Mini-Cassia seeks collaboration after years of squabbles
TWIN FALLS, Idaho (AP) — Though divided by a river, Minidoka County and Cassia County are eternally associated.
The county names, when mushed together, even form an easily identifiable name for the region: Mini-Cassia.
But the counties have struggled at times to unite for the common good. Winding through Mini-Cassia, the Snake River creates a division that often runs deeper than an ordinary county line.
Most of the region’s population settled along the river’s banks over the years. But fierce protection of assets and resources, firmly entrenched high school sports rivalries, geographically large counties and an attitude of rugged individualism led to years of squabbling between the two counties.
“There has always been a division between people in Minidoka County and Cassia County because each has issues that are important to them,” Burley Councilman Jon Anderson told The Times-News newspaper in Twin Falls.
But today, visionary leaders are paving the way for a collaborative effort that bridges the murky, green waters of the Snake River. Officials in county and city governments and school districts lead the way, sharing resources and successes.
“We are growing closer together, whether we want to or not,” Anderson said.
Decades of squabbles
For decades, there was no shortage of issues to induce bickering between the two counties. Among them were: the incorporation of North Burley in Minidoka County, J.R. Simplot Company’s gifting a Heyburn plant to the city of Burley, and land use issues when officials tried to find a site for a new airport.
“Those attitudes of division have existed big time in my opinion,” said Heyburn Mayor Cleo Gallegos.
Gallegos recalls joint ideas like a regional hospital and a county fair that withered under the scrutiny of people determined to keep the status quo.
The city of Heyburn was embroiled in a years-long legal battle with the J.R. Simplot Company over electrical rates and in the end — with a resounding thud — J.R. Simplot closed the doors of the Heyburn plant and gave the property to the city of Burley.
Burley used the property to develop an industrial complex, and the city tried to soften the blow by naming it the Burley-Heyburn Industrial Park. Minidoka County and Heyburn still benefit financially from the park on the tax rolls and the sale of electricity.
Still, “Simplot’s gift to Burley was a hard slap,” Gallegos said.
A stinging blow went the other way during Burley’s attempts to find a site for a new airport. The city of Heyburn annexed 320 acres of property owned by Blincoe Farms into its impact zone, essentially freezing out Burley’s chances of acquiring the property.
Anderson said when the owners of the Ponderosa Inn, which sat near Interstate 84, exit 208 and has since been demolished, wanted to build, the city of Burley expanded its borders incorporating North Burley and providing the needed infrastructure.
Even earlier, when Burley incorporated an area north of the river in Minidoka County, now known as North Burley, the action reverberated for decades. The issue of whether the city could cross the Snake River — which represents the county line — to incorporate went before the Idaho Supreme Court in the early 1960s.
“We didn’t take it from Heyburn. I think it was that we took it before Heyburn,” Anderson said. “It’s a hybrid area over there.”
The expansion, which is still discussed today by residents and government officials, provided Burley with a prime business location.
“Our forefathers in Heyburn didn’t have the vision or the money at the time to develop it,” Gallegos said of North Burley, which abuts Heyburn and would have been a logical extension to it. “It takes a lot of courage to see that kind of vision and what a city needs to be 10 or 20 years down the road.”
But today’s leader suggest a different future for Mini-Cassia, one in which hard feelings from leaders of a bygone era are softening. New relationships are forging, and leaders have begun working together peacefully.
“Our relationship with Burley now is at an all-time high,” Gallegos said.
When attitudes divide
Several factors contributed to Mini-Cassia’s years of division, including differing attitudes and a dose of stubbornness.
Clashing political personalities, fear of losing control of resources or power, religion, sports rivalries and the desire to maintain individual communities all played a role.
Some of the divisiveness also comes from county loyalty, Anderson said.
“Sometimes that makes it hard for projects to come together,” he said. “Should you put that hospital closer to my house or yours?”
Also, when services are combined between the two cities, that means fewer jobs and less control for the governing bodies.
“It often comes down to who’s going to be in control,” Gallegos said.
Religion can also be divisive, said attorney Don Chisholm, a Rupert resident who has a law practice in Burley.
People are so tied together in their religious organizations that they don’t always care to know people outside of them, and they tend to be suspicious of people they don’t know, Chisholm said.
According to the Association of Religion Data Archives’s 2010 U.S. Religion Census, which is the latest report available, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the dominant religion in both counties, but makes up a bigger share of the population in Cassia County. Catholicism comes in second in both of the counties.
According to 2010 City Data information, 52 percent of Cassia County residents who identify with a religion are Mormons; in Minidoka County, 38.4 percent are LDS. Nine percent of religious people in Cassia County identify as Catholic, while 20 percent in Minidoka County do.
Chisholm has been a proponent for decades of more consolidation of government services in the area.
“A lot of times, people just want to keep the resources in their county,” he said. “That’s part of it.”
Like Anderson, Cassia County School District Superintendent Gaylen Smyer thinks much of the separation comes down to people wanting to maintain a community identity.
“Look at the issue of combining the county fairs,” Smyer said. “The issue always comes back to where it would be located, and the same thing occurred when there was discussion about a regional hospital.”
Collaboration that works
Cassia County and Minidoka County governments, along with the two school districts, serve as models in the community for collaboration and consolidation of services.
The counties jointly operate the Mini-Cassia Criminal Justice Center, Mini-Cassia Public Defender’s Office, adult and juvenile probation departments and the Mini-Cassia Juvenile Detention Center.
Those services operate under joint power agreements between the two counties, and are governed by boards with members reporting to both sets of commissioners.
“I would say the joint ventures definitely save the taxpayers money,” said Cassia County Commissioner Bob Kunau.
Cassia County also works with the city of Burley to provide police services for the city through the Cassia County Sheriff’s Office. The consolidation of services for the two counties reduces overhead costs and duplication of staff, Kunau said.
Though the city and county have struggled at times to come together during contract negotiations, they have always ironed out the differences in the end.
The Cassia County Sheriff’s Office also works with the Minidoka County Sheriff’s Office, the Rupert Police Department and Heyburn Police Department through a drug task force and on other law enforcement issues.
The collaboration extends beyond justice systems; Minidoka County and the cities in the county operate a joint animal control venture too.
“I think there’s a huge benefit to that kind of collaboration,” Chisholm said.
A task force takes flight
After two decades of fighting over land-use issues for a new airport site, a task force was formed in 2016 to bring together Mini-Cassia leaders, citizens and airport users. The goal? Formulate a plan for how the project could be shared between the two counties and to select two top prospective sites.
The Federal Aviation Administration will no longer fund the airport in Burley because it does not meet safety standards, so the city will eventually close it down. Before that happens, Mini-Cassia hopes to find a new site that the two counties can share.
The city contracted with an engineer to study the issues surrounding the airport and formulate an airport master plan, which was sent to the FAA in December for approval.
The master plan remains under review, said Mark Mitton, Burley administrator.
If the plan passes muster with the FAA, it will be reviewed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Still, a new airport is likely years away.
In the meantime, Mitton said local legislators are helping officials answer questions on how a shared airport could be governed, an issue that will likely show up on a future ballot.
Teaching each other
For decades, the Cassia and Minidoka school districts operated independently. This year, for the first time, they launched an industry tech class in a single location open to students in both counties.
“It is a one-of-a-kind class. There is no other like it in the country,” said Jay Wing, a High Desert Milk employee who doubles as an instructor for the School to Registered Apprenticeship Program.
STRAP allows students to attend classes and work paid summer jobs with companies. Upon completion of the program, students earn a federal certification.
The two districts developed the program in collaboration with the Idaho Department of Labor, the College of Southern Idaho and industry sponsors like High Desert Milk, Fabri-Kal and McCain Foods.
Companies developed the class curriculum based on industry needs, and the class is treated like a job, with pay in the range of $10 to $12 per hour. Students must interview for class placement and sign a performance contract that includes real-world responsibilities, like showing up on time.
If successful, the pilot program will be expanded to include high schools in outlying communities.
The Minidoka County School District also approved its second charter school this year, geared toward industrial classes that provide certifications to students. The school was driven by industries’ need for qualified workers in the area. The school will benefit students not just in Minidoka County, but all across the Magic Valley.
“I see regional collaboration increasing,” said Debbie Critchfield, spokeswoman for the Cassia County School District. Critchfield also serves on the state board of education. “I think we will see a lot more communication between districts and sharing of resources.”
In January, the two school districts began brainstorming ways to curb suicide in the community, an effort that spurred the Mini-Cassia chapter of the Suicide Prevention Action Network of Idaho that will soon begin.
“If something worked, it used to be our little secret. But now we share, and that door is wide open,” said Sandra Miller, Cassia County School District assistant superintendent.
As all of Mini-Cassia experiences similar growing pains, Morley said, the region is often “duplicating expenses.”
Going in together and sharing costs for projects makes sense, especially for smaller cities like Paul and Heyburn that lack financial resources.
“Why should every city in the area pay those overhead costs when they could go in together and share?” Gallegos said.
Take, for example, the two cities’ plan to connect their walking paths via the Overland and Burley-Heyburn bridges to create a 10-mile loop of paths.
The city of Heyburn is on the cusp of expanding its walking path from the Burley-Heyburn bridge to O Street and then to 21st Street, which will eventually tie Heyburn’s paths to Burley’s via a walkway over the Overland Bridge.
Heyburn and Burley’s paths are already connected on the east end by a walkway on the Burley-Heyburn bridge.
Burley plans to complete its greenbelt path from the Overland Bridge to the Burley-Heyburn bridge_closing the loop of paths on both sides of the river.
“We are interconnected in so many ways, and we could work together more instead of pulling apart,” Morley said. “Heyburn’s attitude is that we are open and willing to work on everything.”
In government, improvement is often made when younger people take office across Mini-Cassia, which shines a light on different perspectives, Anderson said.
“And in some cases electing people who came here from other places has helped,” he said.
A big shift in the Burley City Council’s willingness to collaborate on projects across the area has already taken place, he said. The council now recognizes that if Rupert excels, Burley excels too.
“I think people are starting to recognize that we are all in the same market area,” Anderson said. “We all benefit when we work together and things grow.”
When people look at this area as a place where they may want to live, they don’t just look at Burley or Rupert. They look at the entire market area of 40,000 people, he said. That mindset could be just what ties the two communities together.
“To continue to move forward,” Gallegos said, “The people in the two counties need to stop thinking about what’s in it for me, and instead think more about what’s best for the whole community.”
Information from: The Times-News, http://www.magicvalley.com