By John Hitt
I would like to comment briefly about my term of service as Interim Curry County Administrator.
First, let me thank the Curry County commissioners for the opportunity to serve from September of last year until this April. I enjoyed meeting and working with many wonderful county citizens. A new, permanent county administrator, Clark Schroeder, has been hired and will be on the job in a few weeks.
During my time as interim administrator, I enjoyed the support and positive working relationships with almost all of the staff and elected officials at the county. While Commissioner Court Boice initially opposed my hire, he and I quickly developed good relations. While I certainly did not always agree with Boice, I always found him reasonable and open. He also understands the need to move forward with the important challenges facing Curry County.
These challenges are serious and cannot be met by simply calling for more budget cuts or smaller government, as appealing as these are in concept. The major issues facing Curry County are unfortunately numerous and beyond the scope of a brief letter to mention. But based on what I saw while working for the county I would frame them as follows:
The sheriff has had his budget reduced by too much for too long to adequately protect the citizens of the county. The county’s crime rate has grown for years, the sheriff cannot provide even minimal patrol coverage and our jail needs major upgrades and more staffing to continue to function, long term, as the county’s only incarceration facility. In addition, the county’s emergency communications/dispatch network has been neglected for years and faces a serious threat of catastrophic failure.
There has been no serious attempt to measure the real-world impact of budget cuts made in the past and measure those cuts, department by department, with desired or even minimal service standards. In fact, the county has not established or prioritized any service standards. Budget cuts are made without the benefit of established service priorities or needs.
Related to this is the lack of having any kind of long-term capital facilities plan. That is, what is the reasonable remaining life expectancy of county buildings, and major equipment (see #1, above), in the light of future growth, changing technology and legal/insurance requirements.
Curry County has had a long-term revolving door of county commissioners. Almost never does a commissioner serve more than a single term. This is not advocacy for incumbents. But unless you have prior local government experience, it is tough to get up to speed in a difficult and challenging role in less than 1-2 years.
Currently some at the county seem much more focused on rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic than with any serious discussion, let alone action, of these and many other systemic and even existential issues. Much effort, time and energy are spent agonizing over the exact wording of county documents while the broader policy issues often get short shrift.
Finally, as budget hearings begin in a few days, I would urge the budget committee to look at more than just the numbers. Cutting back on training, travel, new equipment, staffing etc. may look appealing. But it is important to look beyond just next fiscal year. There are ways to develop a multi-year plan that might use some small amount of the road fund reserves now with a reasonable mechanism of paying it back, with interest, over the next several years. But of course, this should be done in the context of prioritized service levels.
I apologize for the length of this letter. Even as it is, there are many issues and examples that I have not addressed. But the problems are curable. I would hope that as the county elects a new commissioner and a new administrator comes on board, a fresh approach will be embraced, because what has been followed for many years continues not to work.
John Hitt is a former Curry County interim administrator.