County may dig into reserve funds for budget

Facing a budget hole and possible job cuts, Hood River County is still looking for a path forward.

The county’s approach may couple a yet undefined tax measure and pulling from reserve funds, according to commissioner discussion Monday. But nothing was finalized at the work session.

Budget deliberations began in earnest last week with the first budget committee meeting for the 2018-2019 fiscal year, launching a series for the panel as it nears budget adoption in June. In the near term alone, the county expects around $1.4 million in shortages.

A pending draft budget considers reductions in staff time or positions in nearly every department. The budget committee has asked for direction from the elected county board of commissioners.

On Monday, Commissioner Rich McBride opened the session by stating a few goals he would like accomplished by the end of the meeting. Among them were committing to some kind of tax measure and agreeing to curb job reductions with reserve money.

“I would like to commit to spending reserves this year as a stop-gap measure and not cutting any jobs … it’s creating chaos at the employee level to have this feeling hanging over their heads,” McBride said.

Several other commissioners wouldn’t make that commitment.

Commissioner Les Perkins said, “I want to make sure we have enough reserves for a three-year (path), because, quite frankly, just because we’d like to pass a tax measure doesn’t mean we’re going to pass a tax measure.”

Commissioner Karen Joplin gauged board sentiments on using reserves, asking if anyone distinctly opposed the plan. Commissioner Bob Benton said the plan was “definitely on the table,” though he wanted more information through budget process.

Joplin said she’d be comfortable using somewhere above $500,000 of reserves, but not the entire $1.4 million gap. Similarly, Perkins mulled a ballpark range from half a million to $600,000.

The county is considering placing a tax measure on the November ballot, though what exactly it would entail hasn’t been decided. A 2 percent sales tax proposal stirred controversy, and the commission dropped the plan.

Sheriff Matt English and his department are working on early plans for a public safety tax levy, which English will share with the budget committee.

What did come into clearer focus April 9 were the county’s next steps in outreach and the way staff will interact with a local advisory volunteer in fiscal matters.

The board reached consensus for an adviser, Arthur Babitz, formerly Hood River mayor, to meet with County Administrator Jeff Hecksel about finances. Babitz noted he will not be paid for the role like a formal consultant. He will take a “deep dive” into staffing and money issues.

Joplin and McBride also pitched creating a lineup of community focus groups. Each will be co-chaired by a commissioner and involve a key staff member, tasked with the “homework” of reviewing department needs, and preparing a recommendation that will be clear and explainable to the public.

Joplin intended for each group to meet 4-5 times in April and May, then report their findings around June.

The work groups would be separated by county department, such as public safety, health, public works and forestry, the fiscal side, and possibly one for all services that operate out of the County Business Administration building, such as Community Development, and Records and Assessment.

Joplin said the groups will “engage our community and do a strong job of garnering support from our community,” and assessing the services they’d like to see.

The county wasn’t equipped with enough information the last time they received a flurry of public input, the board said, at a pair of hearings regarding a two percent sales tax plan that the county then abandoned.

Numerous local business owners criticized the tax’s impact on companies that need tourism for their bottom line.

NORCOR request

In another money issue, the county has questioned the financial viability of the juvenile facility at Northern Oregon Regional Corrections Facility in The Dalles.

The board wasn’t ready to commit Monday to a request they will make to the NORCOR board on funding for the facility; however, commissioners charted out some options.

Commissioners mentioned they may ask for a reduction in the subsidy Hood River County pays to the regional jail. NORCOR serves member counties Hood River, Wasco, Sherman and Gilliam. Those governments pay a subsidy to fund its operations, totaling $3.8 million a year.

Another path is closing the juvenile facility entirely.

Benton, who serves on the NORCOR board, stressed that whatever action Hood River County takes, it won’t see savings until the following year, 2019-2020. The jail side of the matter will target sustainability beyond the county’s immediate budget crisis.

The board slated the NORCOR topic as an action time on their April 16 general meeting.

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