Curry County Roadmaster Dan Crumley doesn’t want anyone touching one penny of the $33 million or so he has saved over the years to take care of the county’s roads.
“Oh, that’s no secret,” he admitted, with a laugh. “I recognize the county’s in a really difficult situation, but. …”
Crumley’s road fund is the only county coffer with a seeming abundance of money — and the only one from which county commissioners can take funds to help soften the fiscal blows that have come its way in the past several years.
To some, it appears to have become the trough at which the county rescues its floundering sheriff patrol services; to others, it’s a coveted pot of gold that could solve the county’s fiscal woes.
On both counts, of course, it’s not that simple, Crumley said.
The financial complexities have some citizens wondering why the county doesn’t take more money from the roads department to fund more deputies for law enforcement. With each tax measure that fails, county officials predict increases in crime, particularly in unincorporated areas.
That issue was brought up in a recent Port of Brookings Harbor meeting in which the board met to discuss whether it should create its own law enforcement in its district, which, in general, runs from Pistol River south and east to the border.
Harbor resident Tom Huxley pointed out that there was no need to do so, as the county can take money from its road fund to provide more deputies for the southern end of the county.
Currently, Sheriff John Bishop has budget approval to have six deputies on staff; he has four. It’s not for a lack of trying, but due to applicants’ hesitancy about taking on a new job that might not last long in a county in shaky financial shape, he has repeatedly said.
At that point, most who spoke at the port board meeting asked why the agency would even want to get involved in law enforcement.
Crumley shakes his head when he hears those comments.
“There are people out there who think the county can take money and pave the county with deputies,” he said. “But that doesn’t solve the county problem. We (roads department) are already subsidizing patrol.”
“The proposal to suck the Road Department dry is irresponsible and simplistic,” said County Commissioner David Itzen. “Even though we’d have adequate troopers on road, it still doesn’t pay for the rest of the things jeopardized from the lack of federal funding. What good does it do to have 18 deputies on the road when you don’t have the adequate staffing in the DA’s office or the jail The folks who are agitating for it don’t have the full grasp of the situation.”
At this point, the county has few options to save the county’s financial bottom line; they will be discussed at its regular Dec. 18 meeting.
The first is to lay off about half its employees — which it has already done once by spinning off departments to nonprofit agencies — and the second is to declare a public safety fiscal emergency under the terms of House Bill 3453 and have the state take over county operations.
That, too, isn’t as simple as it sounds, and involves numerous approvals and agreements from the governor to local officials that, even by design, are time-consuming. It would also involve the implementation of an income tax surcharge — a tax on state income tax paid — to restaff county departments.
Another part of the House Bill that hasn’t been much discussed is one Itzen hopes to bring up next week: increasing 911 fees on cellular phones — also allowed under House Bill 3453 — to bring in additional revenue. Yet, like the property tax proposed before it, the telecommunications fee increase would merely buy commissioners time to create a “Curry County solution.”
The Road Fund
Historically, the county road fund received its money — on average, about $3.5 million a year — from U.S. Forest Service timber sales, which represented about 75 percent of that pot. That funding source has since dried up.
Now, the county road funds are provided, primarily, from Secure Rural School funding, which totalled $1.64 million last year — $2 million less than historic levels, and then only because the U.S. Congress agreed to extend those payments. If that extension had not been granted, Crumley’s coffer would have seen about $100,000.
The road funds are not to be confused with the money the county’s general fund gets, which is derived from a portion of timber tax revenue generated on O&C lands on Bureau of Land Management property in the county.
Crumley, who admits he’s conservative when it comes to money, began 20 years ago to save pennies here and dollars there on various projects and, on the advice of a budget committee member, put that money in a reserve fund.
“We had a good program,” he said. “We were paving roads, fixing roads, replacing bridges and, at the end, we had a little bit left over and ... we felt like we should save it.”
He thought if he could build the fund to $20 million, the county could pay for roads’ maintenance using the interest generated on that money.
But that was 20 years ago, when interest rates hovered around 5 percent.
“There was always the undercurrent that the timber money wouldn’t be there forever,” Crumley said. “As time went on, that became really clear. And in the 1990s, they shut the forests down. The handwriting was on the wall; you didn’t have to look in a crystal ball to see the end was near.”
Now, he can’t count on SRS funding — another factor in his disinclination to dole out funds to subsidize other county departments. He made cuts to his department in 2007 — and the next year, SRS funds tanked.
The only other source of revenue for county roads, about $1.5 million a year, comes from state gas tax revenue, and can only be spent on road projects, Crumley said.
Many county officials throughout the state, however, didn’t save for the future, and voters here have repeatedly rejected property tax increases to fund county functions.
In the past, only two Oregon counties — Lane and Douglas — were allowed to take road funds, and then, only for use on Sheriff’s Office road patrols.
House Bill 4175, approved in 2012, allowed six more counties, including Curry County, to take money from their road funds for road patrols, said county Finance Director Gary Short.
Curry County commissioners then appropriated $700,000 for its 2012-2013 fiscal year for road patrol, saying they intended to pay it back.
Then, Crumley said, a lawsuit in Lane County in 2012 alleging the inappropriate use of funds in the Sheriff’s office. That prompted the crafting and passage of Senate Bill 496 this year, of which one part expanded the permitted use of the funds to include indirect costs related to road patrols, such as dispatch and supervision — but specifically excluded jail, DA or juvenile operations.
Curry County commissioners this summer budgeted an additional $950,000 in its 2013-2014 budget — from the roads fund — for use in the patrol division. That move will then free up funds originally intended for road patrol for use in other departments.
SB 496 also extended a Jan. 2014 sunset to Jan. 2, 2016, at which point, no more such “takings” from road funds will be allowed.
County commissioners, particularly David Brock Smith, have often said they intend to repay the first taking of county road funds, but realize in the same breath that could be impossible considering the county’s current financial situation.
Although Smith sometimes refers to the taking as a “loan,” no loan documentation has been filed through Gary Short’s office.
The Road Department has a little more than $33 million in its coffers, and the county could, legally, take it all.
“Yes, they could,” Crumley said. “It wouldn’t be a very good business decision. And then they’d have to figure out how to fix the next slide.”
Those don’t come cheap, either.
“It cost $1 million to repair four slides on North Bank Chetco — and the work on the South Chetco; there’s $600,000,” Crumley said. “You can burn it up real fast. Slides can be really expensive.
“Big storms, big damage, is not foreign to us,” he added. “If you look back just one year, we had three emergency storm events — big storms, that caused in excess of $3 million in slide repairs. Throw in two or three slides and a little bridge wash-out, and there’s $5 or 6 million.”
The storms and the cost of damage aren’t the point, he said.
“These people fail to see the bigger picture,” Crumley added. “The road patrol isn’t the issue here. The albatross is the jail, the DA’s office, juvenile department.”
Even when county funding was just beginning to get tight, Crumley told commissioners that, at the current rate, road monies could be gone in six to seven years — and sooner, if commissioners keep using it to backfill its patrol service shortfalls.
“Eventually the road money will be gone,” he said. “And there is no fix for a road revenue shortfall — the state? The taxpayers? It doesn’t seem like taxpayers would be interested in funding that.”
Funding the road department to the extent it has been — $3.5 million a year — would, ironically, result in a property tax increase level about the same as what commissioners have asked for in the past two elections.
“It doesn’t solve the long-term problem,” Crumley said. “We really need to harvest timber. I really think that’s part of the solution. I’m not sure if it’s all the solution, but it’s definitely part of it.”