Extra cash short-term spells relief for county

Written by Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer January 29, 2014 09:24 am

Curry County has scrimped and saved its way into a little more money — money that will buy more time before county government falls off a fiscal cliff.

County Accountant Gary Short has said things looked grim after voters twice rejected a property tax increase last year. He repeatedly warned county commissioners that, barring some extraordinary event, the county would run out of money sometime this spring.

But the moving target that is the county budget appears to have some extra money in it — for the very short term, Short said.

For the 2014-2015 fiscal year, the county has $1.4 million it collects in property tax revenue. The so-called “helium” bill — the U.S. Congress approved to privatize the nation’s helium reserves and grant one-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools program — added another $1 million to that. And $1 million in PILT funds — Payments in Lieu of Taxes, paid by the federal government and that were not put into the county budget — have been released.

“We haven’t seen the money, but we expect it to arrive,” he said.

But what excites Short more is that various savings have been realized throughout the budget, totalling another $1 million.

The savings were realized, in part, because Short operates on a conservative revenue and expense plan.

“Don’t over-budget your revenue or under-budget your expenses,” he said. “We always expect the budget to be a little underspent — you’re unable to fill some positions, or there’s a little more revenue here and there, and it adds up.”

This year, the county collected about $20,000 more in alcohol-sales tax revenue. Property taxes garnered about $70,000 more than anticipated. Coos-Curry Electric Cooperative paid a little more. Parole and probation had an employee who made a higher pay grade leave and who was replaced by someone who isn’t making quite as much. The Sheriff’s Office had numerous positions that didn’t get filled.

“You start adding these (smaller items) and it makes a little money,” Short said. 

Time and money

The “newfound” money will also buy time for commissioners to develop a plan to save the general fund. It could even buy enough time for commissioners to decide to declare a public safety fiscal emergency and invoke some of the options in House Bill 3453.

That is so time-consuming that, if it were initiated today, it wouldn’t be until the middle of next spring to get in place, according to State Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who outlined the bill at a Public Safety Summit meeting last Friday in Gold Beach.

HB 3453, approved by the legislature last summer, would allow the state to staff county operations to a “minimum” level and bill citizens through an income tax surcharge or an increase in 911 fees for the work. State and local officials have all indicated their desire to avoid implementing elements of the house bill.

“It (running on a tight budget) is better than some of the alternatives,” Short said. “We could go forward and all slam into the wall, fall off the cliff. This isn’t a solution by any stretch, but it gives us a little more time to figure out how to land.”

While it’s good news, the extra money isn’t enough to keep the county running; Short said he expects county commissioners will have to take another $950,000 to keep government running as it is.

“This is obviously just a possible conjecture,” he said of the taking. “It’s not absolutely going to happen. If we make the same budget, it’ll take (another) $950,000. If we put in twice as many deputies, it might take $1.5 million or $2 million.”

In any case, Short plans to “strongly urge” the budget committee not to plan on everyone saving as much money as they did in this past cycle.

“That’s crazy,” he said. “There won’t be another year we can do a budget like the one we have right now. I get really concerned when we get too close to the budget, and it’s scramble-time to figure out how to stay out of trouble with state budget law. But I’m thrilled.”

“We’re still on the head of a pin,” said Commissioner David Itzen. “Anything can push us off: some big catastrophe, a massive wildfire threatened citizens, a tsunami that drains the Sheriff’s Office, a roof failure — on and on and on. Anything could blow us out of the water in terms of lasting a whole year. But it appears as if we’ve got the money, and it appears to be the same as last year.”