Curry County commissioners will discuss at a Nov. 8 workshop whether they should draft an ordinance — or ask voters at the March general election — to allow them to loan road reserve funds to other agencies.
The issue, proposed by Commissioner Court Boice, could enable Curry Health Network to open its long-promised emergency department in Brookings, which he said is a top priority for the 60 percent of Curry citizens who live south of Pistol River.
It could be a win-win situation, as the bulk of the county’s $33 million in road reserve funds is invested and earns very low rates of return. The county could lend some of it at a higher percentage rate — but a lower rate at which the health network could obtain on the free market — thus making some money for the county and helping the healthcare network.
State legislation passed in 2012 allowed a handful of cash-strapped counties, including Curry County, to use road funds for the sheriff’s deputies as their work is directly related to travel on county roads. The law was further broadened to allow funds to be used for part of 911 and dispatching services as they relate to work on the road.
Sheriff John Ward has six deputies in his employ, compared to more than 20 when fiscal times weren’t so tight as few as 10 years ago.
The first year, the county transferred $700,000 from the road reserve fund; another $921,546 was budgeted for the 2012-14 biennium and $1.2 was allocated but not spent in 2015-16. Last year, $1.7 million was budgeted for that use.
County Attorney John Huttl said both options have their pros and cons, based on whether it is considered an administrative or legislative maneuver. Legislative matters that go to the voters are typically viewed in a broader context, while administrative ones involve the minutiae involved in following through on the voter’s decision.
For example, the ballot question asking to tax recreational marijuana was a legislative item, while determining how the tax would be collected, disbursed and spent was administrative.
The county could pass an ordinance allowing the loans, but a future board could overturn it, or voters could place a referendum on the ballot and overrule it. If it went to a vote, it also runs the risk of being rejected.
Interim County Administrator John Hitt indicated he was uncomfortable with tying up road funds in loans that might not come due for 20 years.
“It would restrict us in a way that is not wise,” he said. “An emergency can come up, and there’d be a need for funding — $500,000, a million, $2 million — and we couldn’t find it anywhere else.”
The county could also approve a “right of referendum,” which involves approving an ordinance and holding it in suspension until voters could approve it — or not.
Or, the board could ask voters in an advisory capacity if they would approve of such loans, but County Commissioner Court Boice said that job should fall to the board.
“Government does not go to the people if we have tough decisions to make,” he said. “If we have tough decisions, we’re here to make them.”
He also said taking it to a vote in March would delay the opening of an emergency department for months.
Commissioner Sue Gold said in a recent discussion with Network CEO Ginny Razo that, with the new hospital construction debt, CHN is in no financial position to take on more loans.
“Ginny said they will not borrow one more penny,” she said. “They are so far in debt, they will not borrow one more penny. Those were her exact words.”