Layoffs loom for Curry County

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer December 20, 2013 05:06 pm

County commissioners have about 100 days in which to either lay off employees in a methodical and orderly fashion or dump pink slips on them all come March 31 and send county government into a tailspin.

“My analogy to this situation is that we are all on this large bus, driving down the road and we can all see the road ends at a brick wall,” Ken Dukek, director of juvenile services, told commissioners at a regular meeting Wednesday. “We can either slow down and let people off to lighten the load, or we can slam into the wall at 70 miles an hour and see what happens.”

The county is suffering from a lack of federal timber dollars and has been unsuccessful in getting voters to approve property tax increases to pay for essential services. It has left the county with a $2.1 million budget, a staff half the size it was two years ago and an uncertain future.

And time’s running out as fast as the money.

The three commissioners ultimately decided Thursday to direct county attorney Jerry Herbage to create a fiscal emergency declaration to be voted on at a later date — and hold another meeting to further discuss their options. That declaration, if approved, would be sent to Gov. John Kitzhaber and, under the terms of House Bill 3453, begin state-led steps to making the county solvent again.

In the meantime, the meeting, tentatively scheduled for Jan. 23-25, will be a “summit” to which elected officials and leaders from numerous parts of the state are invited to discuss ways to save the budgets of not just Curry County, but others whose coffers have been decimated by the discontinuation of federal timber receipts.

Topics could include jail usage between neighboring counties, law enforcement assistance when current infrastructure has fallen below acceptable levels and emergency management at a multi-county level.”

Sheriff John Bishop expressed skepticism of such a meeting, noting that none of those topics will address the problems the county faces before the coffers run dry.

“I’ll be astounded if we learn anything new,” he said. “They (other county sheriffs) are all calling me, saying, ‘We’re a year behind you; what did you do? What do we do now? What do we do now?’ This is a front-burner topic for all sheriff’s offices.”

Regardless, he highly recommended inviting representatives from Hood River, Columbia, Polk and Umatilla counties, whose tax levies all failed as well. Douglas County, Bishop noted, must cut 45 percent of its budget this year — and even though it is among the counties allowed by state law to draw money out of its road funds, that coffer is dry, as well. Jackson County will be out of money in 2016 or 2017, too, he said.

Back home …

While commissioners plan more discussion, department heads plead with commissioners to act — and soon.

Timing could prove critical as well because laying employees off requires taking into consideration mandated positions, seniority, union requirements, paid vacation times and sick days of each one.

Additionally, the action of almost every department will likely affect another’s capability to function.

District Attorney Everett Dial theorized that if he’s busy answering phones and filing paperwork, he won’t have time to prosecute cases. Dukek won’t be able to have the success rate about which county officials brag in keeping youth from turning into adult offenders.

First to fall

It is the general consensus among elected officials throughout the state that Curry County will be the first to fail.

“We might be at the tip of the spear,” said Commissioner David Brock Smith. “But a lot of counties are right behind us: Josephine and Columbia, and Polk and Lane and, and, and.”

Dukek and Dial said they were more concerned about the immediate needs of Curry County.

“We have exhausted every little pocket of money there is,” Dukek said. “We are six months away (fiscal year 2014-2015) from not having any funds. And we don’t have any solution in front of us.”

“With the budget you gave us, my department will be cut 45 percent,” said Dial, who has four employees. “One of my secretaries has already given notice; others are getting interviews. I’ll be left with one deputy DA, and we’ll be doing what the staff does now: preparing paperwork, answering the phones, paying bills, numbering pages, making copies. … This is an emergency, and I will support any action you can take.”

He and Dukek urged the commissioners to at least draft an emergency declaration to begin the steps needed to implement parts of House Bill 3453. That bill would allow the governor — after weeks, if not months of discussion with state leaders — to enter into agreements with cities to provide law enforcement. Other services would be covered, presumably, when the state hires employees to a level it deems “adequate.”

Those services would be paid for by an 23 percent income tax surcharge, half of which the state has agreed to pay from its emergency reserves, much to the chagrin of other counties whose residents say Curry County should tax itself to pay for needed services.

The county could again take money from the road fund; it has already dipped into that coffer to the tune of $1.65 million. And it could pursue the option of charging cell phone users through a 911 usage fee to pay for public safety — an option Commissioner David Itzen said he wanted to investigate. That option is also outlined in the House bill.

Jan. 7, 2013

Commissioners have had all year to figure out a way to rescue the county from its fiscal situation and little, if anything, has worked. On the success side of the blotter is the spinning off of entire departments — Health and Human Services, hospice and the animal shelter among them — not filling empty positions and slashing expenses to help fill a $3.2 million shortfall in the general fund budget.

On the other side, however, lie the ruins of revenue plans.

Commissioners unsuccessfully posed to voters — twice this year alone — property tax increase measures to boost the bottom line. They are working on economic development initiatives, but those will take years to generate tax revenue for county coffers, Smith has said.

Bishop said commissioners need to demand from that the state stop giving counties unfunded mandates, unloading state duties onto counties, and not giving counties methods by which they can collect money to fund those services.

Commissioner Susan Brown also suggested the department heads lead the charge and meet to determine how cuts in one sector will affect others. But Commissioner David Brock Smith reminded her that a matrix he made last month was created so hypothetical changes could be made and their consequences ascertained immediately.

Brown also suggested inviting city officials to the conversation, but Smith disagreed.

“We’re the elected body as an extension of the state,” he said. “We need to have this summit first so we can brainstorm at the county level. Then, after gleaning that information, we can have discussions with the cities about how to move forward.”

“This reminds me of the story of the boy who cried wolf,” Dial said. “As I remember, in the end, the wolf eats the boy. This problem has been coming our way for a long time, and this time, it’s for real.”

“We started this discussion in January of 2013,” Smith said. “And here we are. On the bus.”