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County approves $55M budget

County commissioners Wednesday gave final approval to a $55 million budget for 2013-2014 — of which more than $30 million merely passes through the county to schools and special districts or is state-mandated to be spent only for specific uses, such as the road department.

The general fund is the only part of the budget over which commissioners have much control and about whose $2.1 million balance has been argued for and against in recent tax ballot ideas. 

The bulk of the general fund’s “discretionary” dollars are primarily used by the public safety departments within the county: the sheriff’s office, jail, parole and probation and juvenile among them.

The remainder of that funds other offices, including the clerk and recorder’s office, elections, the surveyor and treasurer.

The budget used to be supplemented by timber revenue dollars, but those have tapered off in past years. Past commission boards have tried to warn citizens of the impending financial shortfalls in an attempt to obtain an alternate revenue stream, but each year, the federal government came to the rescue.

Some voters now say the commissioners are crying wolf in their attempts to get a tax approved and create a permanent revenue flow. They most recently defeated a property tax measure that would have provided $4.5 million to beef up sheriff’s patrols, among other critical county functions.

With the May 21 defeat of that proposal, the commissioners are stuck with a $2.1 million budget that even budget committee members said was impossible to address.

Commissioners commended County Finance Director Gary Short, who not only had to create a budget to reflect the $4.5 million budget if the property tax levy had passed, but a $2.1 budget when it failed.

“I’m getting better at making multiple budgets,” he said with a chuckle. “The biggest risk in making multiple budgets is, I have to be sure what is being addressed at any given point in time. It’s difficult to keep straight.”

Short credited the “talented people in skilled positions who choose to stay in Curry County in spite of low pay and being overworked.”

The coming year

In the 2013-2014 budget, the commissioners have borrowed $950,000 from the road department for the general fund; recent state legislation now requires that loan be paid back.

Most of that will go to fund the Sheriff’s Department — although Sheriff John Bishop has even said the vacant patrol positions are nearly impossible to fill because no one wants to take a job whose future is unsure. He has six patrol positions available — and Short reminded commissioners that if they are not filled, that will not represent a savings in the current budget.

Another $100,000 of that borrowed money will be spent to install a fire suppression system at the jail, and $10,000 to support the North County Service Center building where some former county departments are now housed as nonprofits.

Other changes they made to the budget included providing $22,000 to continue funding the Mentors program that allows disabled adults to hold down janitorial jobs at county-owned properties.

Terry Brayer of Ophir asked if the budget included the county’s compensation board’s recommendation that elected officials receive pay raises, but Commissioner David Brock Smith ensured him none were granted.

That board said that while they believe county commissioners should be paid $70,000 a year, they only recommended a salary of $64,200. The board also indicated the assessor should be paid $69,000 a year, but recommended $60,600.

The compensation board said they believe the county clerk’s salary should be $64,500 but suggested $60,000; the sheriff’s should be $81,000 a year but it recommended $73,200; and that the county treasurer’s current salary of $56,248 is appropriate.

Cutting to the bone

Commissioners have heard complaints over the past six months that they should take pay cuts, to which Smith responded they took a 3 percent cut last year. Commissioners currently receive $60,000 a year.

Others have said in meetings that county employees should have to suffer along with the private sector in tough economic times and should live within their means.

Commissioner David Itzen and Smith both reiterated that county budgets are cut to the bone and reminded citizens that the county payroll has been reduced by about half, to 99 people, after layoffs, retirements and spinoffs took place last year.

Additionally, Smith noted, recent union negotiations have resulted in SEIU employees — all those except law enforcement — taking no cost of living increases or advancements that would put them in a higher pay scale.

Tentative Teamster union negotiations, which primarily affect the Sheriff’s Office, indicate the same lack of payroll and benefit increases.

“Two years ago, we had a $75 million budget,” Short said. “It all boils down to the money the county receives as discretionary funds — $2.1 million, of which $1.5 million is from property taxes. That needs to support jail, elections, veterans — all those things that don’t have enough funding or grant money.”

He noted the federal government did, again, grant a year extension of  $800,000 from the Secure Rural Schools fund, and another $208,000 in Payment In Lieu of Taxes funds are expected to be received soon.

When Smith asked him how much money the county would have in the bank — it will cost $1.2 million a quarter to operate government functions until some permanent revenue source is adopted — Short said that balance would be about $1 million by July 2014.

“We’ve got $6 million in the road fund, $30 million in the capital reserve fund, $200,000 in the PERS reserve, $250,000 for the Port Orford Trust Fund (addressing a landfill closure) — all this adds up,” Short said. “Most are very restricted. We have $55 million; by the time we hone it down, you have $4.2 million to play with — and I don’t mean that lightly.”

Commissioners have said they will have to “rob” county PERS and unemployment reserves to make ends meet — and still must factor into future budgets the payback of borrowed road funds.

Commissioners expressed concern that, if the county were to draw its coffers dry, they might not be able to pay unemployment insurance to all those who would be laid off. That bill, they noted, would fall to the state to be reimbursed by the county at a later date. 

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