The Curry County Budget Committee last week discussed the status of this fiscal year’s budget all the while trying to figure way to fund emergency communications towers, pay for medical expenses for those in jail and reinstate commissioner salaries — all in times of declining revenue.

The budget committee — which includes the county commissioners — meets to evaluate how the county spends its money and crafts the upcoming fiscal year’s budget. The county is now halfway through its fiscal year and the budget committee is weighing its priorities in the face of declining expenses before it goes into official budget talks this spring.

Commissioner pay

Conversation about commissioner pay could have rocked the foundation of how the county pays its leaders, it was noted during discussion about whether the three should receive the $66,500 recommended by the compensation board last May.

When Commissioner Tom Huxley was elected in 2012, he slashed his salary to $10,000 to save the county money. Commissioner Sue Gold ran on a platform that she, too, would take a $10,000 stipend — if the board hired a county administrator. Commissioner Court Boice reluctantly offered to cut his salary by $20,000.

And now, those salaries are set; they can’t be changed except by a vote of the budget committee, said County Attorney John Huttl. Commissioners voted voted 2-1 to ask the budget committee to do so. In a separate request, the board agreed to ask the budget committee to consider reimbursing Boice $10,000 — half his salary cut — for the last six months of 2018.

Last week, each commissioner ultimately voted to reinstate the original recommended salaries, including Gold, who in mid-January said she was going to stand by her campaign promise and continue to take the $10,000 stipend. Last week, however, she said she doesn’t want to be unfairly compensated in comparison to the other commissioners.

After about two hours of discussion centered around the value citizens receive for that money — and how the county would pay for it — the budget committee voted 4-2, with committee members Tom Brandt and Carl King voting nay, to reinstate the historic salaries.

“You took cuts to fund a county administrator and the county administrator is gone,” said budget committee member Bill Ostrowski. “Now the county administrator is gone, and you’ve hired a director of operations at the same salary — we haven’t saved any money by terminating the county administrator. I’m not sure there’s enough money in the budget without going into the reserves to handle such a thing.”

King was much more adamant about not wanting to reinstate the salaries.

The cost to the county for the three salaries would total $199,407, he noted. The director of operations position is $84,000.

“I won’t begin to understand how PERs is calculated, but it’s more than 10 percent,” King said. “FICA, it’s more than 10 percent. Then, $43,000 in health insurance benefits. That’s $400,000 a year for the direct supervision of 20 employees — most of whom have been county employees for many years and are capable of doing their jobs without supervision.

“I simply cannot in good conscious tell taxpayers it’s a good use of tax dollars to give this increase,” he continued. “I can’t tell that to people who are getting an average Social Security check of $16,000 to $17,000 a year, to live on. That’s less than your travel budget. I can’t tell that to a family who has to feed their kids. I’m tired of reaching into my pocket time and time again to make donations so kids can eat during school vacations. I just can’t do it.”

It also voted not to reimburse Boice $10,000, despite his extensive outline of the committees upon which he sits and the work he does on behalf of Curry County citizens.

Jail Rx expenses

Curry County Sheriff’s Capt. Phil McDonald told the budget committee to be prepared to see potentially wildly fluctuating figures in its budgets, primarily due to inmate medication, which are already reaching 80 percent of budget expenditures, with half the year still ahead.

“We have a gentleman in jail whose prescription medicines are $2,500 a month — we pay that stuff,” he said. “Those line items are going to get blown out of the water more likely than not.”

Gold noted that Medicaid, Medicare, the Oregon Health Plan — and increasingly, private insurance companies — discontinue coverage of a policyholder if they are incarcerated.

“That’s one area of concern we have in our budget,” McDonald said. “We can’t control the cost of prescription drugs. A lot of times, you rob Peter and pay Paul, but we have things in the budget to do that sometimes you can’t rob Peter, you just gotta pay Paul. If this gets way out of whack, we don’t want you to be surprised.”

It’s an issue about which sheriffs statewide plan to pressure the legislature, particularly as people are considered innocent until proven guilty. Additionally, the state has made jail sentences that keep people out of prison — but holds them at the local level, where such costs must be absorbed.

“It’s a moving target,” Sheriff John Ward said. “We don’t know, because we’re required to provide medicine to people we have in custody — no ifs, ands or buts. One Measure 11 inmate on dialysis could bankrupt our system.”

“I don’t see any reason why the state says counties have to pick up the tab,” said District Attorney Everett Dial. “It is a huge expense for the jail, and you never know what the expense is going to be.”

Other issues the budget committee discussed briefly were how to fund replacing the sheriff’s department communications towers in South County, the need to craft a strategic plan for the county and the overall financial status of the county.

“The county can only spend so much money,” said Revenue Task Force member Brian Grummond. “Every dollar we spent decreases someone’s standard of living in the county: food they didn’t buy, a present they didn’t buy. You need to be very careful about where you spend money.”