Brookings: Reviewing county budget futile

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer January 29, 2013 09:01 pm

Brookings City councilmen said their work session with Curry County commissioners was a “waste of time,” noting that nothing was outlined about how the county’s fiscal mess would affect the city.

The comments were made during a city county meeting later Monday evening after the county commissioners had left the work session.

“It’s a waste of my time to go over the county’s budget,” said Councilor Jake Pieper. “I don’t want to spend time to get council’s support for a tax measure.”

County commissioners had a half-hour to present the ramifications of a $2.1 million budget. 

Starting in July, the county only has $2.1 million — $1.4 million in property taxes and $700,000 in various other revenue — to provide county services.

The county is $3 million in the red, and is considering a tax levy measure on the May ballot to generate revenue to keep government alive. They have until March 2 to submit anything to the state for approval.

The federal government has long supplemented the county budget with revenue generated from timber on O&C lands; in the past few years, the government has warned it would be ending that program — but has continued to bail the county out, albeit in decreasing dollar amounts.

This time, however, is truly the end, as it has been expressed in numerous meetings at the county level.

“The federal cavalry is not coming out for us this time,” said Commissioner Dave Itzen. “We’re the only ones who can solve it.”

If the county continues to provide the minimal levels of service it currently is, and there is no additional revenue coming in, the county will be completely out of money by March 2014.

“No matter how much we move it around and tinker with it, it’s not going to work,” Itzen said of the $2.1 million budget. “A tax measure is the only solution to our problem.”

County residents have never approved a tax increase of any kind to make up the difference.

Commissioners agree city officials don’t seem to realize the extent of the budget ramifications.

“What happens when the treasurer and assessor goes away — the mechanism to move funds to the individual cities and special districts goes away?” Smith said “That’s schools, fire, library, port — all those things need the county to survive. Cities need to understand that, while doing a great job, they need the county’s support.”

Despite the dire numbers presented, city councilors later indicated the meeting didn’t tell them anything they didn’t already know.

“I’d be interesting in talking about serious changes,” said Councilor Kelly McClain, regarding how the city would be affected. “I don’t want to talk about a tax. It’s not creative; it’s the same old thing.”

He noted that City Manager Gary Milliman attended a county meeting recently at which various ideas — sales and property taxes among them — were presented as ways to solve the county’s budget problems.

“He came back with a lot of good ideas,” McClain said. “And no one ever talked about it. Some really good things should have been discussed more. We are a big part of the county.”

Milliman said one serious aspect that could adversely affect Brookings is the situation with the jail.

“The reality of the $2.1 million budget I presented is to show what county services will be like if we have to live within our (current) means; it’s very vivid,” Commissioner David Brock Smith said. “You have a situation where the jail and 911 are intricately connected. The 911 operators are also corrections deputies so they can fill the minimum staffing for the jail. Put those together, it’s $1.5 million, and that leaves $600,000 to run the rest of the county.”

If a tax measure is put on the ballot and defeated, one option the county has, under the draft $2.1 million budget, is to close the jail. 

“The real numbers are the bottom line of the operations of the jail,” said Mayor Ron Hedenskog. “This is a brain drain. We’ve spent an awful lot of time discussing the county’s economic crisis.”

Smith noted that while Brookings doesn’t pay for sheriff’s patrols, it does utilize other county services, including the jail, prosecution, parole, probation, juvenile and courts.

 “The county is trying to live off 59 cents,” Smith said. “If the county was afforded the same $3.82 (property tax levy) as the city of Brookings, we’d be doing pretty damn well, too.”