|EXPERT: COUNTY'S FINANCIAL FUTURE 'PRETTY GRIM'|
|August 25, 2001 12:00 am|
GOLD BEACH A gloomy financial future was forecast for most of Curry County by financial consultant Dick Hill Wednesday.
Hill was hired by the county commissioners to write a financial plan for county government, but he also reported on the condition of the county at large.
Hill saw Brookings, and specifically its port, as a bright spot in a sea of gloom.
I remember coming to Brookings when the port was a junk-heap, he said. Its a pearl now, the Cinderella of the coast.
He credited the leadership of the port and community, and the port staff, for keeping the fishing fleet as viable as it could be while diversifying the ports uses and businesses.
He also credited timing. You need to be in the right place at the right time.
He said other ports and communities in the state are still down in the dumps because their time hasnt come yet. The forces have to be right, he said.
When County Commissioner Rachelle Schaaf asked Hill if there was any hope for the county to attract new industries to provide income for young families, he said, Dont deceive yourself. Its hard to counteract the forces in play.
Hill said he believes Curry County will follow a policy of attracting elderly retirees who will be unwilling to support public services.
This is not a place to attract college graduates, he said. Frankly, I think its pretty grim.
This is a very divisive county, he said. People have strongly held opinions. That can be an obstacle to development. Geography is against you, but probably your own worst enemy is amongst yourselves.
He characterized Brookings as upbeat and positive, however.
Commissioner Lucie La Bont said all was not doom and gloom. She said the commissioners and others have been making connections in state government and are already lobbying for an extension of O&C funds.
She said Commissioner Marlyn Schafer has been working on getting a full-time economic development staff person in Curry County.
La Bont said she lived in Appalachia, and thinks Curry County has a lot more going for it.
We need to present a positive face to the state, she said.
That wasnt easy after listening to Hills preliminary report, which La Bont admitted nearly brought her close to tears at one point.
The commissioners also did not question or refute any of Hills findings. They accepted that financially, he has pretty much seen and done it all.
Hill was once a director at Price Waterhouse, the assistant director of the Washington State Financial Management Office and a regional manager for the U.S. Department of Labor.
He founded Richard Hill Associates in 1988 to specialize in rural economic development, public port planning, finance and property development, public program evaluations and improvement, and public financial management systems and practices.
Hill explained why the countys core functions are collapsing while the county budget continues to grow.
To understand that, he said, people must first understand how their county has changed during the last 40, or even 10 years.
In 1960, he said, Curry County mirrored the rest of Oregon in most respects. The average age in the county was 28, and thanks to a healthy manufacturing base, the average income was above the state level.
Since then, said Hill, population growth has fallen far behind the state average. Curry County has grown by 50 percent since 1960, while the state population doubled.
The average state growth has been 120 percent greater during the last decade.
Hill said deaths have exceeded births in the natural population of Curry County, but that loss has been offset by in-migration.
He said most of those moving to Curry County are more than 45 years old, with 75 percent retired. The average age in the county is nearly 49, which is 32 percent above the state average.
Hill said those moving in are very mobile and often spend their resources outside the community, in the valley or when visiting their children. He said generally, as earned income declines, low taxes become the objective, no matter what the cost.
Its had a dramatic effect, said Hill. He said the forestry tax base was replaced by a residential tax base that cant support the communitys needs.
You dont have a vital economy to provide social services, he said, Youre slipping behind the curve.
Hill said 14 percent of adults and 23 percent of children in Curry County live in poverty. The number of children living in poverty is 40 percent above the state average.
Though many of the people moving into Curry County are well-educated, he said, the number of college graduates in the county is also 40 percent below the state average. In 1960, the average covered wage in Curry County, which Hill said is how the state tracks wages, was above the state average. Those wages are now 70 percent below the state average.
Hill said Curry Countys labor force and employment growth totaled only 3.9 percent during the last decade, less than one-fifth the state average.
He said in 1970, 70 percent of the income in Curry County was earned income. By 1999, that had fallen to 40 percent and is still falling.
Hill explained that unearned income is not as responsive to changes. When the economy is good, people are willing to spend earned income. When the economy is bad, they cut back.
People with unearned income are less likely to spend money on schools, for example, even when times are good.
Addressing employment in Curry County, Hill said the government sector had the most growth, though even that slowed during the last decade. The trades and services sector ranked second in growth.
Hill said manufacturing businesses, which had been the traditional tax base of Curry County, dropped by 70 percent since 1960, and 20 percent in the last decade alone.
He said that is unlikely to change. He advised people to be frank with themselves. He said every town with an abandoned plywood mill will not be able to convert it into a high-tech industry.
He said even Gateway Computers couldnt survive where it started in the rural Midwest. It had to move to San Diego to attract and retain the kind of employees it needed.
You need to find your niche and recognize your limits, Hill advised.
He also warned that the competition is sharp in attracting manufacturers, and that divisiveness in a community drives opportunities away.
He said manufacturers and their employees look at quality of life as safe neighborhoods, good schools, quality medical care available immediately and employment opportunities so their children dont have to move away.
Curry County is not a magnet for people raising families, for people trying to make their mark.