By BILL LUNDQUIST
GOLD BEACH - The Curry County commissioners tentatively balanced the county budget for fiscal year 2002-03 Wednesday morning when they computed the cost savings of closing the Public Health Department to be $171,911.
They also estimated they would save another $20,000 by once again having the Community Corrections Division run its own alcohol and drug treatment program.
They saved another $1,173 by charging the Fair Board for its share of indirect costs such as the county counsel.
The commissioners backed away from a proposal to charge non-general fund departments $129 an hour to support the Computer Services Department.
The total more than wiped out the remaining $185,862 budget deficit, but the commissioners changed their minds in the same meeting and decided to keep the treatment program with the Human Services Department.
The commissioners scheduled a separate meeting Wednesday afternoon to discuss what to do about the $382,000 needed for courthouse repairs and state-mandated safety improvements.
Not everyone was happy with the way the commissioners balanced the budget.
Commissioner candidate Olive Wooldridge said, "The whole process was unthinkable to me, to call in the public health director at the last minute to cut her department."
"You hacked off the head of the health department," she said. "National Health Care Week starts April 1 and you cut the department."
Commissioner Lucie La Bont explained the budget process to Wooldridge.
She said it began when the commissioners met with their liaison departments. She said Commissioner Marlyn Schafer had met with Public Health Director Barbara Floyd.
La Bont said the current commissioners had been telling Floyd since they took office that she had been overspending her budget.
La Bont said the reason Floyd received notice of the departmental closure at a public meeting was that all meetings with two or more commissioners have to be public.
She said former commissioners went through the budget line item by line item with the full budget committee, but the current commissioners decided to do that in budget workshops and present a balanced budget to the full committee.
"We're not just bringing department heads in front of the public and cutting them," she said.
Schafer said the commissioners had talked with the department heads about the budget.
She said the Public Health Department had exceeded its budget in every year since 1998.
Schafer said the county has no money to backfill cuts in federal and state funding. She also said the county's cost of doing business had continued to rise.
"The county can't sufficiently run every program," she said, adding that the state mandates some programs.
Schafer said the state may not run public health services at the same level the county did, but the county couldn't afford to give the department $262,502 from the general fund.
She said the county estimates it may have to pay up to $90,591 in unemployment to return the department to the state, but will save more than $57,000 on office space.
She said the public health program was costing about $12 for each citizen of Curry County, where other counties run their programs for $1 to $4 per citizen.
Commissioner Rachelle Schaaf said the commissioners had worked with Floyd to enhance her billing system.
Schafer said Floyd will still exceed her budget this year, and La Bont said she was far over her budget last year.
La Bont said all the budget proposals will be heard by the entire budget committee, but Schafer said the ultimate decisions rest with the commissioners.
Diane Pace, who helped raise money for Animal Control, said, "Would you be amenable to people working with the Health Department on their budget?"
Schafer said there was no way to run the department without general fund contributions. La Bont said the commissioners all tried to help Floyd with her budget. She said the state would continue to run many of the department programs, and run them more efficiently.
Citizen Henry Lustig said, "I think for the first time the commissioners took the right approach to the budget. They took the bitter pills and made changes."
Bill Swartz, who had also worked to raise money for Animal Control, said, "I've been dealing with public health most of my career. It is a right and a necessity for those who can't afford it.
"The ripple effect can be tremendous. Returning it to the state will have consequences to the community. State-run health departments don't provide the same services.
"Public health shouldn't be considered a business to run. Taxes should go to public health."
Schafer said public health is not mandated for the county. She said the county was $700,000 overbudget after paying for mandated departments.
"What is the timetable for public input?" said Swartz. He asked if Schafer would provide him with the figures on public health. She agreed to do so.
La Bont said the commissioners would bring the proposal to close the health department to the full budget committee on April 15. She said others could bring other proposals.
Swartz said, "This county does not want to spend a dime on public health. I find that alarming."
La Bont said, "The taxpayers are not willing to pay what it costs to run this county." She said that could get worse if the federal funding plan expires.
One public health program will continue under the county, however. Environmental Health Coordinator Mike Meszaros will return to the Public Services Department.
Meszaros inspects wells, restaurants and temporary food booths. The commissioners said his program is self-supporting through fees.
Keeping it in the county will mean $35,000 to $40,000 of those fees will not have to be returned to the state.
Schaaf said public health inspection is in the best interest of the county. La Bont and Schafer reminded her that the state would probably hire Meszaros to continue doing what he is doing, and the county wouldn't have to pay unemployment.
Meszaros said if the program goes back to the state, so would six months of unused license fees. He said the state would have a person in the field in Curry County, but licenses and information would come out of Portland.
The commissioners determined that if the Environmental Health program raised its fees by the allowable 2.3 percent, and didn't add a proposed assistant, it would cost the Public Services Department nothing.
Rosann Headlee, the office manager of that department, said her office is already short on clerical help.
Schafer said Meszaros would bring an additional $4,011 for support services. Headlee said she was not opposed to the proposal.
"We love Mikey," she said. "We'd love to have him back."
The commissioners also took the opportunity to shuffle the motor pool and save the county $22,000 on new vehicles.
When Meszaros joins the Public Services Department, he will use a small car the department was going to return to the motor pool. Meszaros' new sedan, and another new sedan from the Health Department, will go to the Sheriff's Department and save the purchase of two new cars.
Capt. Mark Metcalf said it would cost his department more money to take the public health cars than ordering new low-cost "program" cars.
He said if it would save the county money, however, his department would do it. Schafer said the county may have to increase his budget a bit to cover the cars.
Schaaf asked if Metcalf could increase the revenue needed to provide 9-1-1 dispatch services. Schafer said it costs the county $438,961 to provide dispatch services to each emergency responder in the North and Central county who needs it.
She said that amounts to the county's entire tax base, after paying for departments needed to assess and collect property taxes. Schafer asked if those costs could be charged to the cities and districts.
Metcalf said some counties do so, and others do not. He said that is being discussed by the 9-1-1 consolidation committee working on the plan to combine the 9-1-1 dispatching points in the county.
La Bont asked what the effect would be on the Sheriff's Department if Curry County had no Human Services Department. Schaaf asked if there would be more mentally ill people in the jail.
Sheriff Kent Owens said that could happen. Metcalf said the county's mental health program keeps people suffering mental problems in jail from going into crisis.
Changes are in the wind for the Human Services Department. Director Deb Wilson said she is looking into turning her department into a private nonprofit organization, or forming a new consortium for behavioral health, possibly with Curry General Hospital.
The commissioners urged her to explore all options. La Bont said she realized it would take Wilson more than a year to implement any of those options.
Wilson said she had balanced her budget and would need only $32,995 from the general fund, the same as last year.
To do so, she said, she had to cut another full-time counselor from the addictions program.
She said the program had seven counselors three months ago, but will now have less than four full-time employees.
Wilson said that will result in a decrease of $90,000 in revenue to her department. She said each counselor produces $25,000 in fees.
She said the program will also lose $38,000 by returning some treatment functions to the Community Corrections Division. She said corrections will try to save money by contracting out the transportation part of its treatment program.
Wilson said that might not fly with the union since it will cut county employees who could do the job.
"It saves money for corrections," she said, "but it is a major shortfall for us."
Addictions Program Manager Terry Bell said she had to add two expensive employees when she agreed to take over the treatment program from corrections. She said she would now have to cut one.
Schaaf said Human Services had done a "tremendous" amount of work to take over that program. She told Wilson to keep it and figure out the budget with corrections.