Budget talks at the county level aren’t always about money, as demonstrated this week and last in Gold Beach where some citizens took the opportunity to lash out at the board — and Commissioner Court Boice took possession of the keys to a county vehicle.
The budget committee is comprised of the three commissioners and three citizens — Tom Brand, Carl King and Bill Ostrowski — who spent the past two weeks deliberating the merits of the $54.9 million budget for fiscal year 2018-19.
In past years, it has been contentious, as timber revenue to the county was slashed and departments were almost pitted against each other for general fund dollars. And this year, it stood to be even more so after the now-departed interim County Administrator John Hitt suggested some increases in departments — notably four more road deputies for the sheriff.
But that didn’t happen, and the committee ended up approving many of the ideas Hitt presented. He is being replaced June 4 by Clark Schroeder, a Minnesota development consultant.
Many in the community have questioned whether the county even needs an administrator, particularly given its precarious financial situation. The county runs its operations from a $0.599 per $1,000 property tax valuation — the lowest in the state — that garners the county’s general fund $1.7 million each year.
County Commissioners Sue Gold and Tom Huxley announced during budget discussions last week they plan to continue taking a $10,000 salary — a $56,000 reduction from the regular commissioner wage — to help balance the county budget.
Each has done so since they were elected to office, Huxley in November 2014 and she in November 2016.
Commissioner Court Boice took a salary cut of $20,000 last year, and said last week that if Schroeder stays longer than Feb. 2, he will divide $10,000 of that money among the Vietnam Veterans of America in Brookings, the Curry Homeless Coalition and the Curry Wildfire Prevention group.
Gold Beach resident Dave Barnes criticized the board for taking the lesser wage, noting that that sets a precedent and limits the commissioner position to those who are retired and don’t need a living wage.
“It precludes us from getting people, working people, who cannot afford to spend time here,” he said. “It makes a working commissioner board into a pastime, a part-time hobby.”
Steve Beyerlin spoke against the $10,000 salary, saying it could open commissioners up to influence from special interests.
He cited a hypothetical situation in which a commissioner paid $10,000 would need to hold another job to survive, and if they took one from, say, the National Rifle Association for $75,000 a year, they could be beholden to the organization.
“It opens a big hole that can be exploited,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything the county can do about who you work for. The county is going down the wrong road with this. To hold everyone to that standard is ridiculous. It’s discriminatory. I think there will be lawsuits; there isn’t any other way around it.”
County Attorney John Huttl disagreed.
Gold Beach resident David Barnes lambasted the commission again at the last budget meeting Monday and called on Sue Gold and Tom Huxley to resign.
“Save the citizens the cost and trouble,” he said, “and yourselves the embarrassment of a recall.”
He said board decisions have led to the “frittering away” of money, particularly in hiring Hitt and Clark and wasting time and money attacking Commissioner Court Boice for travel expenses he incurred during the Chetco Bar Fire last year.
“You spent $25,000 on Prothman,” he said of the search company to find Schroeder, which took about a year. “You spent $35,000 on negotiations, $70,000 on (interim County Administrator John Hitt), $43,000 on a severance package (for Schroeder); that’s county money that’s just gone.”
He demanded the board rescind the offer made to Schroeder, saying he is inexperienced and won’t serve the county adequately, as he plans to take four days off every month to return home to the Midwest.
“He’s going to spend three months on a ‘listening’ tour, and then get to work,” Barnes continued. “That’s September 4. And four days a month to go back home, that’s a four-day week. That is not a full-time administrator.”
Barnes said he imagines that when either Jeri Lynn Thompson or Christopher Paasch gets elected in November to the seat being vacated by Commissioner Tom Huxley, the county administrator position will be eliminated.
“Two of you on this commission have changed the way this county is operated,” Barnes said. “And Sue Gold? I hope you write his (Schroder’s) severance check out of your own account so it’s not the responsibility of the citizens.”
None of the commissioners said anything after his comments.
Boice takes the key
County Commissioner Court Boice had some terse words for the rest of the board last week, when he told them he was taking the keys to the Traverse, a county vehicle, and using it as he sees fit for county business.
The other two commissioners didn’t comment.
Boice was heavily criticized by the other two commissioners for his use of a county vehicle during last summer’s Chetco Bar Fire, when he attended daily fire updates in Brookings and helped evacuees and other citizens. Gold said she participated in the incident by listening in on meetings via phone; Huxley was “nowhere to be found,” Boice noted after the fire was extinguished. Huxley had no comment to make on that statement.
County commissioners adopted a county travel policy after the fire was extinguished prohibiting board members from using public vehicles within the county and limiting them to $2,000 a year in travel expenses. Some expenses, including trips to Salem to work with the legislature, require prior approval from the board.
“I have a moral obligation to the citizens of this county who elected me,” Boice said, adding a few times that he will be responsible for any legal consequences his actions might incur. “My concerns are much more important than being subordinate to this board and having my efforts criticized.”
He said he will have the keys, decide when the vehicle will be used and keep receipts and other records when he uses it.
“I am going to explain to the public what I’m dealing with,” he said. “If you’ve (the public) been here every day in the last year-and-a-half and seen some of the things that go on here, you’d see some things you’d not accept.”