The Hood River County Board of Commissioners voted to approve the county’s $13.48 million budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year, under the condition that they would take steps in the coming weeks and months to cut costs.

The approved 2019-20 budget prioritizes minimizing cuts and maintaining the county’s current level of service, under the assumption that the county would likely have additional funding for the next fiscal year.

To do so, the budget fills the $1,159,657 deficit and backfills approximately $400,000 by draining the county’s contingency fund and capital reserve, using one-time income from a variety of sources (including unexpected income from the Mid-Columbia Council of Governments), and utilizing the full $750,000 transfer from timber reserves allowed under a previous commission agreement.

“While we’re passing a budget that has all those transfers in does not mean that we’re going to spend them. We’re going to be doing some work to reduce our costs in the short term,” said Commissioner Les Perkins. In upcoming meetings, the commissioners agreed to discuss a potential hiring freeze and the decreasing service levels in each department.

“I think we really need to look at how not having funding impacts the county and what things can we do right now to move into the direction of not having funding,” said Commissioner Bob Benton.

While the county is required to go through a process to increase the budget after it’s formally approved, there are no caveats for decreasing it.

“You can reduce the budget however much you want, you just can’t increase it,” said County Administrator Jeff Hecksel. Money that isn’t spent at the end of the fiscal year stays in the starting balance for the following year.

The failure of the county’s two revenue measures on the May ballot prompted the commissioners to change their priorities in regard to the budget, with the goal of making it more sustainable for the long-term.

New information provided by Hecksel gave the commissioners another reason to make cuts in the short term: The approved budget shows a higher starting balance than the county will actually have because of unexpected costs accrued at the end of the 2018-19 fiscal year — including legal expenses, overtime pay, and inmates’ medical costs — estimated around $100,000 total.

“The way I look at it, you’re a $13 million budget. You’re talking one percent. If you’re only off by one percent, you’re doing really, really well,” Hecksel said.

“I understand that it’s a small amount, but that’s two jobs,” responded Commissioner Karen Joplin. “It’s a significant amount of money when we’re all the way down to trying to pull $10,000 from here and $10,000 from there, so the only way to fill that gap … is to draw more from reserves,” she said.

“Or not fund positions that are currently in the budget,” Perkins replied.

“There’s opportunities all over to (make cuts), which is why we’re going to have meetings in the next week or two to do that,” added Commissioner Bob Benton.

One of the options the commissioners will discuss is a hiring freeze — but with many departments already understaffed and becoming more so as employees leave for other employment opportunities, a hiring freeze could greatly impact service levels. When asked, Hecksel said that the county’s vacancy rate is 8-10 percent, possibly up to 12 percent.

“It’s not going to be business as usual,” Oates said.

Though they will begin making cuts, the commission did agree to arrange a meeting with consultants on reworking the failed levy proposal for the November ballot.

The minimum levy rate to fill the deficit and add essential capital investment, such as vehicle repair, is 69 cents, and 48 cents without capital investment; but, Perkins said, “That level of funding is not going to get us to where we backfill.” Creating a budget that depends heavily on levy funds is also unsustainable, Perkins added, as the levy expires after five years unless reapproved by voters.

The county has until Aug. 17 to put a measure on the November ballot.

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