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County readies for revenue drop

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

June 21, 2006

The Hood River County Commission anticipates that timber revenue will be down $172,000 during fiscal year 2006-07 — but personnel costs will climb by $233,000.

However, in spite of these financial challenges, officials have held the budget increase down to $7,000 during the next year.

Dave Meriwether, county administrator, said the $28 million budget will not accommodate extra projects — but no extra fees are being levied or services cut. He believes that is a noteworthy feat, especially since jail costs also went up by $151,000.

He said money banked to offset increases in Public Employee Retirement System costs and an effort to streamline services during the last three to four years has stabilized the funding base.

“It’s pretty much a continuing level budget. The Board of Commissioners did a good job of going through it and addressing the issues,” said Meriwether.

He said the county had to find money to cover a two percent cost of living raise for the 180 employees. Plus, health care costs rose by an 18 percent margin, although a special committee is working on cost-saving measures.

Meriwether said the county is covered for any PERS hikes during the next several years since $860,000 has been banked in a dedicated account. The special fund was built up to prepare for the uncertain outcome of a Supreme Court ruling on contested legislative action to reform the retirement program. When some of the cost-saving reforms were allowed to stand, the county decided to hold onto the extra capital to defray future increases.

According to Meriwether, some of the lost revenue during 2006-07 will be made up by more property tax dollars. He said the state is projecting that, due to a stronger economy, there will be more revenue from development to distribute among the 36 counties.

In the past four years, Meriwether said Hood River County has also worked to consolidate services, such as melding the planning and building departments under one supervisor. He said 10-12 positions have been cut as people retire or leave for other employment opportunities. And raises to reward longevity have been eliminated for non-union employees.

He said all departments had also been mandated to drop their materials accounts by five percent. Between all of these efforts, Meriwether anticipates the county will save another $180,000.

But, even though the agency has been able to avoid any major budget crisis this year, he said there could be problems looming in the future.

Meriwether said timber revenue is expected to be down by the same amount again next year. He said market conditions have lowered the average of $4 million generated annually by harvests.

He said it is still unclear whether Congress will continue the Secure Rural Schools and Self Determination Act funding beyond the end of the year.

Since 2000, Hood River County has received about $1.8 million each year in compensation for environmental restrictions on timber harvests in the Mt. Hood National Forest. With 61 percent of the county’s land base within the forest, Meriwether said the federal aid has been critical for road maintenance.

He said the county board is looking to meet long-term financial needs by getting into the renewable energy business. Three committees are now at work to gather data on hydropower, bio-mass and wind technologies, according to Meriwether.

He said the county has also set up test stations on its Middle Mountain property to measure the velocity of the wind — the project that seems the most feasible at this time.

“We recognize the need to continuing to strengthen our revenue position,” said Meriwether.

He said every attempt is being made to avoid dipping into the county’s emergency reserve funds, which total several million dollars.

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