A somber county commissioner board determined Wednesday that it has two choices to make revenues meet expenses for this fiscal year: Make sweeping cuts across all departments or take more money from the road fund.
Cuts or road funds are needed to meet a $3.1 million budget since voters rejected another tax levy last Tuesday that asked for a three-year property tax increase of $1.34 per $1,000 assessed valuation. Revenue generated from that would have funded public safety, including the jail, sheriff’s office, district attorney, juvenile and probation and parole services.
Measure 8-73 lost, 4,733 to 3,422.
Even with the limited options, the three county commissioners could not come to agreement about what to do.
Commissioner David Brock Smith called for departmental cuts, David Itzen preferred taking money from the road fund again, and Susan Brown said more discussion was needed to figure out what citizens want in county government.
An option all three commissioners are trying to avoid involves asking Gov. John Kitzhaber, under the auspices of House Bill 3453 signed into law this summer, to declare a fiscal state of emergency and staff county offices to levels deems “minimally adequate” to meet state mandates.
Tempers began to flare after Smith presented an example of how each department could be cut to meet a $3.1 million budget.
The numbers presented to the board are merely placeholders, Smith said, but the matrix indicates the budget could be met, in part, if the the jail and Sheriff’s Office were cut 40 percent each — from the approved combined budget of $2.2 million to $1.23 million.
Other cuts in that hypothetical scenario meant completely eliminating the Sheriff’s substation at the Port of Brookings Harbor and the veterans, building repair and RSVP departments.
It also called for theoretical cuts of 55 percent in the assessor’s office, 50 percent to the surveyor, 45 percent to the DA, 40 percent in the clerk and recorder’s and juvenile departments, 30 percent to communications, 20 percent to elections and tax collection and 10 percent each to emergency management, parole and probation, search and rescue, marine and GIS departments.
To make the cut equitable in every department to balance expenses and revenue would involve a 40 percent cut to all, Smith noted. That across-the-board cut, however, did not include a 40 percent reduction — but one of 10 percent — to the commissioner’s office.
All those numbers can be — and likely will be — changed in upcoming discussions, which must also address state mandates, notably the minimum requirements the county must meet in regards to its assessors, elections, sheriff, DA and the jail.
The earliest a decision could be made on anything will be at the next commissioner meeting Dec. 5
Sheriff John Bishop, however, was adamant about making a decision — and the sooner, the better.
“I can’t help myself,” he said, taking the dais and interrupting commissioner discussion about a half-hour into the meeting. “You can put numbers up all day long, make changes all day long. The citizens have spoken.”
He also indicated his displeasure at seeing the matrix for the first time even though Smith said he’d completed crafting it Friday.
“Get the numbers from us,” Bishop continued. “You may not get the numbers you want, but if I lay off one person, how is that going to affect (County Clerk) Reneé Kolen? Can she cut two to help Jim (Kolen, accountant)? Maybe I can cut some programs so the DA can keep one employee?”
Assessor Jim Kolen said he agreed with Bishop, saying citizens have made their opinions known, in the Kitchen Table survey, the citizens committee’s 19 recommendations for a fiscal solution and more so, at the ballot box.
“It doesn’t get us anywhere,” Kolen said. “Curry County is already in a situation where most departments are doing poor jobs meeting mandates. If we go with something like this, we’ll be doing a very crappy job. There has got to be some game-changing moves. There is no doubt we need to make the cuts now.”
Under the numbers presented, Bishop said, sweeping cuts won’t work when elements such as matching grant funds and mandated services are in the mix. For example, the Sheriff’s Office is required to use a digital fingerprinting machine, at a cost of $12,000 a year. Phone lines have to be recorded — at a set cost — and it’s been three years since the department purchased new vehicles. Many contracts are matching grants; a dollar cut is a second dollar — or more — the department doesn’t receive.
“And this,” Bishop said, pointing at Smith’s graph, “is a one-year deal. We don’t know if we’re going to get any money next year. This does not fix the problem.”
He said he’s done talking about it, and commissioners should be, too.
“What is the plan for the problem? What are we going to do? What if in five or six years down the road we’re out of (road fund) money?” he said. “ You were elected to lead. It is on your shoulders to make decisions. They’re not going to be popular, but we need to sit down at the table and duke it out until we come up with something. That’s what we need to do.”
Bishop said commissioner talk of layoffs that never occur further erodes credibility of all involved.
“We need to cut; we need to lay off,” he said. “If we don’t, none of us will have credibility anywhere down the road. When we tell citizens we’re going to have to cut and then we don’t because we took this money (from roads) — I’m kind of in two worlds, here. It’s like having an argument between the voices in my head.”
He also pointed out that past layoffs have resulted in most employees absorbing the duties of their former co-workers and cuts now will essentially mean cutting entire divisions in his department.
If commissioners opt to make cuts, County Attorney Jerry Herbage said they’d have to be made by the end of the year so the savings can be carried into the next fiscal year.
Itzen however, stuck by his preference to take another chunk of money from the county road fund, which Roadmaster Dan Crumley, anticipating decreasing timber revenue to O&C counties, has over the past 20 years amassed about $32 million.
The board has taken funds from that twice now — one, a $750,000 loan last year and another of $950,000 this summer — to keep county services operating. Under state law passed in February, counties under fiscal duress can take money from their road funds — but only for use as they are “directly and indirectly associated” to road patrols.
The county, Itzen reasons, can take road money to fund the jail and other entities in public safety because they meet that definition. Funds currently budgeted for public safety would then be freed up for use in other county departments.
Brown repeatedly said the problem is not that citizens are averse to taxes but that more input is needed as to what they want.
“The citizens are willing to pay — they voted for the hospital, for police in Port Orford,” she said. “Our job is to find out why (the county measure failed). Is it the services? The value of services? Leadership? The citizens have spoken; they want the cuts.”
“It is disrespectful to myself and Commissioner Itzen to sit so righteously in your chair and talk about how to have conversations,” he told Brown. “We’ve been having those conversations for a long time. I’ve been having those discussions long before you moved to Curry County. To work together, we need to be on the same page.”
Of primary concern now is how to fund public safety into the immediate future.
Bishop has repeatedly said he needs at least $2 million just to keep the jail open — and closing it presents a plethora of problems in itself.
When Josephine and Lane counties opted to close parts of their jails, they were able to close entire sections, called pods. Curry County’s jail is designed with cells accessed by hallways.
Then, Curry County would have to contract to Coos County to house its prisoners — and that doesn’t include the cost of transporting them to the jail in Coquille.