Small changes for county budget

The Hood River County Board of Commissioners adopted the county budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1, with little fanfare during a regular meeting of the commissioners held last week.

One of the few comments on the matter came from County Administrator David Meriwether.

“You guys just spent a lot of money,” he told commissioners after they passed the county’s $26.1 million budget.

In a later interview, Meriwether called the budget “pretty much status quo” compared to last year’s $27.6 million budget.

“There’s not a lot of major change in it,” he said. “Continuing levels (of funding) in most areas or at least close to it. An increase of note: We did cut a couple of law enforcement deputy positions a couple years ago when the economy began to really decline and we did manage to put one of those back.”

This year’s $2,845,950 budget for the sheriff’s office saw an increase of approximately $150,000 in expenditures over last year’s, due to the restoration of the deputy position as well as “a series of smaller increases in materials costs” according to Sandi Borowy, county director for the Department of Budget and Finance.

Budget Expenditures Comparison

FY 12/13 FY 13/14

GENERAL GOVERNMENT $7,318,543 $6,166,157

SHERIFF $2,693,243 $2,845,950

PUBLIC SAFETY & JUSTICE $3,701,033 $3,389,497

PUBLIC WORKS/ROADS $5,316,812 $5,618,700

HEALTH SERVICES $2,133,256 $2,024,219

FORESTRY $2,718,873 $2,666,360

COMMUNITY SERVICES $3,067,416 $2,711,127

NON-DEPT/NON-PROGRAM $746,350 $776,500

TOTAL $27,695,526 $26,198,510

Public Works also saw a bump of just over $300,000 to its budgeted expenditures in the upcoming fiscal year to pay for road planning and improvements. That budget totals $5,618,700.

Most other county departments also sustained decreases in their budgets. General government expenditures, which cover a variety of different programs and services, total $6,166,157 for FY 2013-14 — a decline of $1,152,386 from last year’s total. Borowy said the reduction was due to a number of reasons, including a decrease of around $250,000 in federal forest receipts, $800,000 because of a community development block grant and a clean energy program ending, and $50,000 due to the transient room tax.

Public safety and justice’s budgeted expenditures dropped $311,000, most of which Borowy said was attributable to a reduction in “jail expenses.” (See story at right about the NORCOR budget.) Community services expenditures fell nearly $400,000 — money that was previously allocated to The History Museum of Hood River County’s renovation project, which wrapped up last year.

Meriwether said overall, Hood River County finances are doing fairly well when compared to other counties in Oregon, but still face significant issues. According to Meriwether, one of the biggest challenges facing the county budget is providing health insurance to its employees as healthcare costs continue to rise. He noted that the county was able to prevent costs rising by switching insurance carriers, while keeping the level of benefits intact for the most part. Meriwether added that the county has had to contribute more to the Oregon Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) which has also put greater pressure on county finances.

On the revenue side, Meriwether said like other municipalities around the Pacific Northwest the county is still suffering from lackluster timber sales, which contribute anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of funding to the general fund.

“With the recession, the value of our sales have dropped by about half, because timber values dropped, because no one was building houses,” he explained.

Meriwether noted that timber sales were all the more important due to the county’s capped tax levy rate of $1.41 per $1,000 of assessed value, which he said was very low compared to other counties around the state. He hoped the housing market would continue to recover and timber sales would recover accordingly.

“Long-term, it’s not a very rosy picture,” Meriwether admitted. “We have very little revenue sources here in Oregon.”

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