(The following is part one in a series that looks at the budget situations of six of Curry Countys 21 departments.)
GOLD BEACH Two days of budget meetings between the Curry County Commissioners and their department heads revealed that salaries are driving budgets up, but are still so low the county has problems attracting or retaining employees.
The commissioners devoted all of Tuesday and Wednesday to meeting individually with 21 department heads.
They directed the department heads to come up with two budgets: an A budget similar to last years, and a B budget with items that are needed and would be included if there were funds available.
Commissioner Lucie La Bont said even the proposed A budgets are 20-40 percent higher than this years budgets. She said most of those increases are driven by salaries.
At the same time, department heads expressed frustration over their inability to secure competitive wages for themselves and their employees.
The first department head on the hot seat Wednesday afternoon was Human Services Director Deb Wilson.
Human Services includes mental health and alcohol and drug treatment services.
Commissioner Marlyn Schafer wasted no time in getting to the bottom line. She asked Wilson what she would do if her department, like Home Health and Hospice, received no general fund money from the county.
Wilson said she would lose $90,000, and would have to think about leaving the county system and making Human Services a nonprofit organization.
She said Human Services was taking $100,000 a year out of the general fund when she became director three years ago. Thats gone down to about $70,000 now.
Wilson said shed come in under budget every year, and is not asking for an increase in general fund money this year.
La Bont praised Wilson for keeping her budget level, even while salaries increased. She said other departments had not been able to do that.
Wilson said shes increased fees as the cost of living has gone up, in accordance with federal mandates.
Schafer was concerned about departments that keep growing with federal and state funds. She said the services are so necessary that if those funds went away, the county couldnt serve hundreds of dependent people.
If you always look at what-ifs you would be stymied, said Wilson. You are the mental health authority, as mandated by the legislature.
She reminded Schafer that while Home Health/Hospice and Public Health have private counterparts in Curry County, Human Services provides the only mental health services.
La Bont said, The scary thing to me is that every time a mill closes or fishing goes down, there is increased need for services.
Our job as commissioners is to find more economic development, to create more jobs, she said.
So many problems are economic, said Wilson. People go postal.
She said her department had 32 employees this year, but will have 36 in the coming fiscal year.
Commissioner Cheryl Thorp said, Your department is a good example of if you build it, they will come.
Wilson said as an Oregon Health Plan provider, Human Services cant deny treatment.
Schafer cautioned Wilson to put enough cash carry-over into her budget to last for three months.
From the large Human Services Department, the commissioners went on to District Attorney Charlie Steak, who is nearly a department of one.
Not only must all law enforcement be funneled through his office, but child support and domestic violence prosecution are under the district attorney.
Steak has had little luck over the past few months in attracting any applicants for his two vacant deputy district attorney positions.
He said he finally had to advertise at a higher salary, and now has some applicants to interview.
He said former deputy district attorney Alexandria Streich couldnt pay her student loans with what she was paid in Curry County.
She was allowed to defer her payments, but left Curry County owing $10,000 more in interest.
Steak said prosecutors make about $35,000 in the district attorneys office, when they could make $100,000 in the private sector.
He said people who want to be prosecutors dont do it to get rich, but added, We need those people and have to pay them enough to come here.
Thorp said, To be honest, its public service, not a career.
Steak told the commissioners he is giving up his discretionary share of state liquor law funds to put all $10,000 into the district attorneys office.
He said since most of the crimes he works on involve alcohol or drugs, the money will be used appropriately.
As an example of the kind of costs his office must bear, Steak said medical exams, required in pleas of insanity, run $800 each. No one in Curry County can do the exams.
Forensic psychologists have to evaluate the propensity for sex offenders to reoffend. That evaluation also has to be done outside the county at $300-500.
Steak said the evaluations are necessary because when youre taking a 15-year-old person and locking them up for six to eight years, you want to make sure theres not a better alternative.
La Bont noted that Steaks budget was $65,000 more than last year, with most of the increases from salaries. Schafer said the increase was closer to $60,000.
I have pared this thing down, said Steak. It will be tough to get through successive years.
La Bont said, We need to lobby the state government to pay more of their share. She praised Steak for the good job he had done on his first budget.
Steak said he inherited a few problems from his predecessor, such as a five-year lease for equipment that he cant get out of.
He also said some of the figures in last years budget didnt take into account the actual cost of providing the services.
Steak said the most frustrating costs he had to budget for came from the county itself.
He has to pay witnesses $5 plus eight cents a mile to appear at a trial, but he has to pay the county $20.24 for each check that it writes for a witness.
County Accounting Manager Geoff Buchheim said the charge doesnt just cover the cost of writing a check, but pays for the entire accounting process.
The amount was unfairly put in the district attorneys budget, said Steak. I have so little to work with.
He said his office manager comes in early and goes home late, something he doesnt see in every department.
La Bont said if departments werent charged their share of Fiscal Services costs, it would have to be taken out of the general fund, reducing what each department receives.
Steak said that would be better than giving departments funds artificially and then taking them back. He said two grants in his department wont pay charges for Fiscal Services.
La Bont said every department head had been upset by the charges.
Schafer said, We really are going to look at it. She said it didnt make any difference to her which way Fiscal Services was funded.
Steak was also concerned about the large build-up of compensatory time for his employees. He said that is because most domestic violence happens outside of working hours.
He said the amount of time being accrued is a big fiscal liability.
He asked how he would pay someone with 250 hours built up if they quit. He also couldnt give someone 250 hours off.