County to borrow $950K to cover jail, deputies

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer June 11, 2013 08:31 pm

Curry County will borrow $950,000 from its road department to help pay for sheriff’s deputies and fire suppression at the jail, commissioners decided Tuesday.

Three commissioners, county Treasurer Gary Short and two members of the a budget committee poured over 306 pages of figures and spent more than five hours examining their 2013-2014 budget, which served as a reminder of how little they have with which to work, how much they have to borrow from other county funds and that few decisions are made with any ease.

The money will ultimately go for Sheriff’s patrols and a fire suppression system for the jail.

Both drew considerable comment.

Curry County is operating under the constraints of a $2.1 million budget since timber revenue has disappeared and voters nixed a property tax increase that would have provided $4.5 million a year toward public safety.

Commissioners first discussed approving that $4.5 million budget in case a proposed 3 percent sales tax measure they hope to put on the ballot this fall is approved. Short and budget committee member Sam Scaffo dissented, saying they shouldn’t consider adopting a budget with funds that aren’t available.

“It’s different in my mind,” said Commissioner David Itzen. “Passing a budget based on nothing ever passing is the wrong way to go. If we adopt the $2.1 million budget, it gives a negative view of the future of the county.”

“We have to look at what is reasonable to expect,” Scaffo said. “There may be enough in reserves to build that budget, but I think it’s toast on fumes. It (sales tax passage) may happen, but I don’t think it’ll pass.”

“It’s irresponsible to start with the $4.5 million budget, agreed committee member John Spicer. “You start spending money at the higher rate and you won’t be able to finish out the year. We have this amount of money, we need to build a budget for that amount of money.”

County Attorney Jerry Herbage noted that if a sales tax measure is approved by voters, commissioners can create a supplementary income budget that addresses that increased revenue. Also, he said, county leaders can only, by law, adopt one budget.

Funding the law

County commissioners agreed to again borrow $700,000 from the road department to supply Sheriff John Bishop with the capability to hire four more road deputies. He currently has four, but needs 12 to provide a minimum level of law enforcement in the county.

“I’ve got the budget for six deputies,” Bishop pointed out, “but I’ve received few applications because people are worried they won’t have jobs through June 30.”

He said he has two deputies fresh from academy training that are already looking for jobs with a more secure future and better pay. It takes 16 weeks to graduate from the academy and up to a year — and between $65,000 to $68,000 apiece — to train them.

“I said this five years ago: Until we have sustainable funding, the only ones who will apply are the ones who get certified and move on. I can battle low pay because of the quality of life here. I can battle a lack of sustainable funding because of the quality of life. But I can’t fight both.

“I could attempt to get deputies if we have the money,” Bishop said, adding that he has not been able to fill the two available positions he currently has. “But I could only tell them it’s a year, commissioners. That’s all I could say.”

Sheriff’s Lt. John Ward agreed, saying the police in Grants Pass recently attracted 300 applicants for four open positions.

“I know deputies who would love to come here to work,” he said. “But they can’t afford to feed their families. I do it because I love this county. I love my job. But I’m struggling paycheck to paycheck.”

In the meantime, Bishop’s four deputies, lieutenant and detective are working up to 80 hours a week each.

“Some days I don’t have anyone (on the roads),” Bishop said. “That’s when the lieutenant and I shag the calls. My guys are maxed out.

“You talk about 45 minute responses for break-ins; with six deputies, we’d be responding to calls without backup,” he added. “They’re risking their lives. We’re asking them to do things we just shouldn’t ask them to do.”

His deputies are buried in paperwork, as well, with about 30 reports apiece needing to be written.

District Attorney Everett Dial noted that if he doesn’t have reports before a case goes to court, the arresting officer must be subpoenaed to testify, further taking time away from their work.

“To have minimal function, we need 12-plus deputies,” Bishop told commissioners. “That’s minimal. John (Ward) is working 80 hours a week. We don’t go home Friday night and not worry about anything until Monday.

We’ll do what we can with what we have.”

Value of services

Commissioner David Brock Smith said he knows lots of people in the private sector who make more than many in government.

“The citizens are frustrated with county government because they don’t see any value because our services are below adequate minimum standards,” he said. “I’m not in favor of debilitating the employees we have left who are working twice as hard to get things done.”

Kathy Brayer, a citizen who worked to get the property tax measure approved, vehemently disagreed, saying she’d asked many who voted against it why they did so.

“The socio-economics of Curry County are such that a significant number of people live below the poverty level, and many 60 and older are living on far less than people working for county government,” she said. “They get quite upset when they look at (county) benefits when the most they’re living on is Medicare and Social Security.

“It’s gotten to, ‘What’s in it for me?’” she continued. “To them, there’s nothing in it for them.”

Itzen said she represented “one opinion,” and that results of the Oregon Kitchen Table survey — participants said they saw value in county operations and were willing to fund them — are more accurate.

Cuts and expenses

An issue exacerbating the delicate funding challenge is the employees’ union, which recently approved changing its health insurance policy at an additional cost of $12,000 a year.

Currently, those employees are insured under a Blue Cross policy, but it requires a minimum number of 10 participants. If any were to opt out, that plan could not be written, Short said. Additionally, the county has lost half its employees to departmental spin-offs, layoffs, departures and retirement, further reducing that pool.

And law requires the county offer insurance plans for retirees, and the old plan didn’t allow that.

The commissioners agreed to reinstate the Mentor’s program into the budget, as well. That program helps disabled adults obtain custodial jobs in county buildings, raising their self-esteem and earning a wage. Without the county participation, the program likely would have to relocate or fold, said Commissioner David Brock Smith.

That program cost almost $16,000 last year. Commissioners agreed to take those funds from the “materials and services” fund. It currently has a $228,000 balance.

“That fund is used for those minor things that come up in the middle of the night,” Short said. “This would be one of them.”

There is no other contingency fund — unless the commissioners opt to take funds from future PERS retirement or unemployment funds or the county’s working capital.

And it’s not like people haven’t been trying to pick up the slack, Itzen said.

“The maintenance staff said they’d clean the toilets, scrub the floors and empty the trash,” Itzen said. “But my concern is that these buildings are in such bad shape. I was relieved when we hired a part-time maintenance person. One isn’t enough to hold this facility together. I don’t know how we can expect these guys to scrub floors, too.”

Commissioner Susan Brown suggested all elected and non-representative employees pay half their insurance and retirement benefits.

“I know this is harsh, but this is what so many people are frustrated about,” she said. “My health insurance and my retirement is my responsibility. If we can save money and help law enforcement, let’s show the citizens we’re serious about doing what’s right. It’ll go a long way.”

Bishop said his employees would be forced to leave, as they wouldn’t be able to afford to live here.

“It’s a noble idea,” he said, “but there’s no way. Public servants doesn’t mean public slaves. We have shown we’ve been pretty responsible. We’ve been under budget every year since I’ve been sheriff, we’ve done a lot with little. To ask my non-representative employees to do that? They’ll leave.”

Neither Itzen or Smith appeared interested in the idea, either, saying they’d taken a 3 percent pay cut in 2009.

“To say we have no skin in the game is not accurate,” Smith said. “We took a pay cut a few years ago and it was unappreciated. Our operation is sustained by the number of people willing to hang in there. We’re relying on the goodwill and esprit de corps of people willing to hang in there.”

Commissioners also debated — and eventually approved — allocating $100,000 from the road fund to install a fire suppression system in the jail. The state fire marshal has “given us a pass” for the past 15 years, Bishop said, but his last letter was more terse and implied the county needs to bring that part of the operations to code.

Commissioners indicated they were concerned about liability, especially if inmates who have lighted fires in the past, were to burn the building down.

Committee members, however, weren’t as sure, noting that if a permanent budget solution isn’t found soon, the jail will be closed and they’ll be out that $100,000. And, Scaffo noted, the concrete building hasn’t burned in 50 years, it has alarms and inmates are watched 24/7.

Other departments

Other county departments — clerk, assessor, treasurer and tax collector — didn’t receive much attention, as some of their financial outcomes are tied up in state legislator committees and little is known how any one bill might affect them.

The appraiser’s office, noted Jim Kolen, was 40 years behind schedule in its appraisals, often going to appraise a property only to find out it never had a building permit issued. Now, with another appraiser on staff, they’ve cut that backlog to 23 years.

Many departments no longer exist under the auspices of the county, having been spun off into nonprofit agencies in the past two years. Among them are Home Health and Hospice, Curry Community Health, the animal shelter, mental health and addictions.

Next year, Healthy Start will receive no funding, nor will liquor law enforcement, planning, building or environmental offices.

And the county will have less than $95,000 to do desperately-needed repairs on buildings.

Commissioners expressed their thanks to the budget committee, whose members noted their struggles with the budget.

“I hate doing it this way,” Scaffo said. “I hate eating up those reserve funds. I hate taking road funds for a second year in a row. But the alternative is worse.”

“There wasn’t anywhere else to cut,” Smith said. “We’re cut to the bone.”