Tim Martin/Here's a Thought

Posted:   02/23/2014 02:37:38 AM PST | Updated:   5 days ago


People who think the common man is thick and a soft touch to boot might want to have a word with Bert Silva of Rio Dell. Silva worked for the Pacific Lumber Company for 31 years and spoke on behalf of the company on numerous occasions at various forums, meetings, and environmental protests surrounding the 1990 “Redwood Summer.”

The bankruptcy of PALCO and the sale of Headwaters cost Silva and many other timber workers their jobs. As part of the settlement and purchase agreement the state and federal governments awarded Humboldt County $18 million as compensation. In March of 2007 then-Rep. Virginia Strom-Martin and then-Gov. Gray Davis posed for a photo on the steps of the Humboldt County Courthouse, holding a giant check for $12 million. On the memo line it read: “For jobs and job retraining for displaced workers.”

That check offered ex-PALCO workers and their families a glimmer of hope, at least for a short time. Then it became a nightmare.

At the recommendation of Supervisors Bonnie Neely and John Woolley, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors adopted a Headwaters Fund Charter to outline its purpose and structure and to justify the emptiness of their impending actions. The money would be used to “support the growth of industry clusters; to increase the number of sustainable jobs that pay at or above the median income; and to enhance the quality of life for residents of Humboldt County through projects that promote healthy communities and protect and enhance the natural environment.”

In other words it was going into a private slush fund. This seemed to be a good all-purpose way for local representatives and moneyed nobility to tell PALCO workers and gyppo loggers, “We're taking your money. Deal with it or don't.”

Headwaters funds have since been spent on an upgrade at Buckhorn Summit on State Route 299, an expansion of air service from the Arcata-Eureka Airport to Los Angeles, Forestry and loans to various local businesses. $750,000 went to a Forest Products Initiative aimed at convincing California residents to choose redwood over wood-plastic composite lumber when building decks. What about job retraining for displaced PALCO employees? Why, that money was being used to “offset job losses.”

Pretty slick, huh? Simply twist the facts. Break out the smoke and mirrors. Wall Street bigwigs and Washington spin-doctors have nothing on our Board of Supervisors.

“The Headwaters Fund was to retrain displaced timber workers and to offset the decrease in timber tax revenue,” said Silva. “Those who lost their jobs at PALCO never saw a dime of that money. The county pocketed the whole thing. When I called the courthouse and asked about it, I was told that the money was never earmarked for those purposes. I had a long talk with former Rep. Virginia Strom-Martin, who had authored the bill, and she too wondered why the workers never saw any of the money.”

Humboldt County Economic Development Coordinator Jacqueline Debets also told Silva that Headwaters money had never been reserved for jobs and job retraining. Evidently, there were more important places for it, like the Orick rodeo grounds restroom facility ($50,000), Internet access for the Hoopa Valley Tribe ($35,000), and septic improvement for Willow Creek ($35,000).

There is something a little sad, if not enormously disturbing about this picture. It's a story of responsibility shirked. And let's not stop there. Let's extrapolate a little further because if you look at this closely, it's a downright disgrace. The Headwaters Fund is not being used as intended. The money was set aside for displaced PALCO workers. Calling it a “grant fund” or a “community investment fund” is just so much manipulation and greasy double-speak on the part of the Board of Supervisors.

”County leadership knew there would be layoffs,” said Silva. “I lost my job and there was only $4,000 to retrain from the state. No money came from the Headwaters Fund.”

Silva knows that taking roundhouse swipes at local politicians is not the answer to the problem. But he would like to see the Headwaters Fund used for its intended purpose: To help laid off PALCO employees get back on their feet. “We aren't looking for a lump-sum payout or early retirement,” he explained. “We just want what was promised to us.

”In the end it was not only Hurwitz and the enviros who got what they wanted from the demise of PALCO,” Silva added. “It was our county government as well.” 

Tim Martin resides in Fortuna and writes this column for the Times-Standard. He can be contacted at tmartin@northcoast.com.