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County says NORCOR funding plan doesn't add up

May 11, 2011

Nowhere in the 2011-12 budget request for the NORCOR correctional facility was money included to clean up the mess when Hood River County and Wasco County started squabbling over how much each should be paying for the prison.

Perhaps there should have been.

"Your chairman is very upset," was the blunt message NORCOR board/Hood River County Commission Chair Ron Rivers delivered to NORCOR Administrator Jim Weed when Weed appeared before the budget committee last week.

Rivers had been livid ever since the NORCOR board outvoted him 4-1 last month to adopt a new funding measure that reduces subsidy payments for Wasco, Sherman and Gilliam counties and leaves Hood River with $170,000 in additional payments.

No one else behind the table at the budget committee meeting was very happy either, with comments ranging from "We feel like we are being railroaded" to "We've been complaining about this for 10 years and every year it's the same."

If Hood River County can't find the additional $170,000 in its budget, it is considering making its first three quarterly payments and then only making the fourth if it winds up with more revenue than projected.

The county took a similar tack last year, according to County Administrator David Meriwether, and wound up making its payments in full. However, he said this year's revenue forecast is less favorable.

If any county cannot make its full payment to NORCOR, the other three counties are allowed to reduce their payments in kind, potentially leading to a catastrophic, or even fatal, blow to the joint facility.

"We need to talk about it and we need to resolve it," Weed said. "I think that each of the four counties realize that running separate facilities would be extraordinarily expensive."

Weed said he has reduced staffing levels on the prison floor to the minimally accepted safe levels, and now all the cuts are coming from the administrative side, and that those cuts are starting to take a toll.

"People that work here are working their tails off to keep their nose above water," he said.

For the first time in five years, Weed included a 2 percent funding increase from all four counties in this year's budget request, which he said was necessary to maintain safe staffing levels on the prison floor, while continuing to cut from administrative positions.

"Our additional share would have been $26,000," Rivers said. "Then we got that and the Dan Plan."

The "Dan Plan," named after former Wasco County Administrator and NORCOR board member Dan Ericksen, is a funding model that rolls together two different options.

For the first decade of the facility's life, the funding model has been based on projecting usage of 50 beds by Wasco County, 40 by Hood River and five each from Sherman and Gilliam counties. Those bed numbers also made up equivalent funding percentages.

Over that decade, NORCOR staff have tracked actual usage on a five-year rolling average.

The actual usage averaged out to 62.48 percent by Wasco, 26.51 by Hood River, 5.46 by Sherman and 5.65 by Gilliam.

Rivers had been under the impression that the future funding model would use only the rolling average when he continued a March meeting of the NORCOR board to allow Wasco County to have a representative at the meeting.

When the board reconvened in April the Dan Plan was put back on the table and promptly passed, with Rivers being the lone vote in opposition.

"It just hit me from left field. I couldn't believe it. We had a done deal and were ready to vote on it," Rivers said. "They thought it was more equitable but it injured Hood River County."

A model similar to the "Dan Plan" was actually passed a first time in 2008, with Rivers seconding it. However, the amount of money that NORCOR requested from its member counties has remained constant until this year, leaving no need for it to be enacted.

With the increase in money, all the funding options for the facility were again reconsidered, with Rivers believing the five-year rolling average was going to be the choice until the board re-convened.

Under the "Dan Plan" the high number between the minimum number of beds paid for and the rolling five-year average was added up. In every case except Hood River, the higher number was the actual usage. The total of those numbers between the counties - 120 -was then divided into the actual usage.

That left Wasco paying 56.9 percent, Hood River 33.3, Sherman 4.9 and Gilliam 4.8.

The original budget request for NORCOR included a 2 percent increase from each of the counties to fund operations.

That would have meant total contributions of $1,926,654 from Wasco, $876,146 from Hood River, $169,236 from Sherman and $165,837 from Gilliam.

Under the percentages in the Dan Plan, Wasco would pay $1,784,927, a reduction of $141,727 from the original number, Sherman $155,063, a reduction of $14,173, and Gilliam would pay $151,664, also a reduction of $14,173.

Hood River would pay $1,046,219, an increase of $170,073.

Ericksen says the plan is the best way to split the difference between usage and the amount of funding the counties committed to when the facility opened.

"Hood River never did use its 40 beds, but that was the funding level they committed to and those beds were reserved for them," Ericksen said. "We've kept with that commitment level since it opened."

Rivers, who said he battled with Ericksen numerous times over funding issues when the two were together on the NORCOR board, disagreed.

"It needs to be based on usage alone; that is the only equitable way," he said. "We've been subsidizing Wasco County for years."

While Hood River County has never used its dedicated bed space, Wasco County has averaged 68 beds used while paying a committed funding level for 50. For each bed the county goes over, it pays $10 a day. The cost was based - in 1999 dollars - on the cost of providing food, water and electricity for inmates. The fee has not changed since the building opened and does not include overhead or administrative costs.

Weed said the most recent board minutes he could find toward an actual change in the funding model came in the May 2008 vote to adopt the "Dan Plan" model. Included in the minutes for that meeting is a note that each county may increase its bed allotment by informing the NORCOR board of its additional needs at a February meeting. Wasco County has never increased the amount of beds it requested, but has continued to pay the $10 per day overage cost.

"Their computation went from 50 to over 70 (beds)," Hood River County Sherriff Joe Wampler said. "We just said ok you pay for anything over that, but Wasco County made themselves a heck of deal to do that - ten dollars per day, per prisoner…They always had an inability to pay and it was adjusted to fit that. Well it's our turn now and it's their turn to turn that around."

However, Wasco County does not appear inclined to do that, at least not in the coming fiscal year.

"We are certainly willing to discuss it - just not this year," Wasco County Commissioner and NORCOR board member Sherry Holliday said. "We are willing to sit down and look at anything anyone is willing to bring up."

Holliday said that Hood River County could look to sell its extra bed space, but that Wasco County would not be buying it as it already pays its $10 per day overage costs to the facility.

The federal government would also be an unlikely customer for the bed space.

One of the factors behind the NORCOR budget crunch is its decreased usage by the federal government.

Weed said the U.S Marshalls and ICE are under increased pressure to either send inmates to federal detention facilities or deport illegal aliens to their country of origin.

The government began reducing its usage in the summer of 2009.

"Now it's about half of what it used to be," Weed said.

At the budget meeting Meriwether said he and Rivers intend to have a sit-down with their counterparts in Wasco County to try and work out a long term funding model between the two largest contributors to NORCOR.

That could prove difficult, especially with both counties mired in constant budget issues.

"The situation keeps deteriorating and no matter what you decide on next year it will deteriorate and you don't know how much," Ericksen said, adding that he was glad he no longer has to deal with the budget issues after leaving office last year. "Trying to do anything sustainable for more than a year is challenging."

However, the Hood River County side of the funding situation wants to at least give it a shot.

Sitting on the sidelines as the budget debate unfolds, Weed is hopeful that something can get worked out, both for the good of the facility and the good of all the counties involved.

He said he enjoys working for the NORCOR board and that they largely work well together as a group and hopes the current situation leads to a long-term solution that works for all the contributing counties.

"We have an opportunity and I don't want to see it wasted," Weed said to the budget committee. "This facility needs funding that is consistent and equitable."

Proposed funding models for NORCOR

A) Counties continue to pay on original funding commitments. Wasco County would pay for 50 percent, Hood River 40 and Gilliam and Sherman five each. The funding percentages aligned with the original number of beds assigned to each county. Counties that go over their allotted usage of beds in the 50-40-5-5 scale would pay overage fees.

B) Five-year rolling average based on usage. Under the most recent rolling averages, Wasco County would pay for 68.26 beds (62.48 percent of total budget subsidy), Hood River 29.17 (26.42 percent of total budget subsidy) and Sherman and Gilliam about six (5.46 and 5.65 percent) each. This accounts for an increase in total beds usage, and comes out to about 110 beds.

C) The "Dan Plan." The higher number between each county's minimum bed commitment and five-year averages are added together, which equals 120 when rounded (68 actual beds for Wasco, 40 minimum beds for Hood River, 5.93 actual beds for Sherman and 5.8 minimum beds for Gilliam). That number is then divided against each county's actual bed usage in the five-year rolling average to get a funding percentage. Under this model, Wasco County would pay 56.9 percent, Hood River 33.34 percent, Sherman 4.94 and Gilliam 4.83 percent.

Option C was recently enacted by the NORCOR board for the coming fiscal year.

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