Already dealing with its own catastrophic budget crisis, Hood River County now has to make a decision regarding another budget: NORCOR’s.
NORCOR is in the middle of its budget process for the next fiscal year, and it’s estimated that NORCOR will need to dramatically increase county subsidies in order to operate. Hood River County’s share of that would be $1,832,409 — $299,012 more than what the county paid this fiscal year ($1,533,397).
The Hood River County Board of Commissioners met in special session last week to discuss how the county will approach the cost increases. Commissioner Bob Benton, who also heads the NORCOR board, said that NORCOR has identified two options that would dramatically cut costs: Closing the jail’s Juvenile Detention Facility, and reducing the number of beds at the adult facility.
“I don’t think either one of these (options) are a good option, but they are options that will greatly reduce the increase,” Benton said.
The increase in operating cost is attributed to increasing PERS and food costs, capital projects, and the fact that several programs currently funded by grants are reaching the end of their grant funding.
“A lot of these are kind of the cost of doing business,” Benton said.
The cost increase didn’t happen all at once, Benton clarified, as they’ve previously been absorbed by NORCOR’s outside contracts — including the controversial ICE contract. This year, the cost increases reached a point where NORCOR needs more from the counties to make ends meet.
Hood River County Sheriff Matt English pointed out that, compared to the cost of jail services for other similarly sized counties in Oregon, NORCOR is relatively inexpensive.
“Frankly — I know it’s a lot of money — (but) we’re getting a pretty good deal” for the facility they have, he said. Regarding the cost increase, he said, “Really, it’s (still) a heck of a deal, but it (the increase) is certainly hard to swallow in one year.”
The commissioners talked over the two major cost-cutting options — closing the juvenile center and reducing the number of beds in the adult jail — and garnered input from English and Hood River County Juvenile Director Robbie Johnson on whether either option was viable.
(Editor's note: A previous version of this article mistakenly misidentified Robbie Johnson as Wasco County Juvenile Director Molly Rogers)
Should the juvenile center close, detained youth would have to either be transferred to Multnomah County, which has a high bed rate and a minimum eight-bed purchase requirement, or to Bend, which requires significant transit time.
“In the bigger picture, that changes the way we do business and it changes our detention decisions,” Johnson said.
“We’ve talked about (closing the juvenile center) for a few years,” said Commissioner Les Perkins, “and at the end of every discussion, it seems to be that we’re not gaining anything by closing juvenile … it sounds like a good idea at first, but the further we get into it, it seems like a bad idea to close the juvenile. We lose certainty. Yeah, we don’t like the cost increases, but there’s a high likelihood that we would see greater increases to cost down the road by contracting that out.”
Cutting beds at the adult center isn’t a feasible option either — the adult center currently operates with 100 beds but, due to the nature of the costs associated with each bed, “you’re not really saving anything until you break the bed size down to 50,” English said. “Generally, just because you save a couple beds doesn’t mean you save money because you have to have staff up to that point.”
Cutting beds would likely also mean a reduction in the jail’s programming, since the jail wouldn’t be able to support it, he said.
“It’s an unfortunate reality that we have to have a jail, but it’s a really key component in the criminal justice system, and we’ve got to have places to house and do those programs so that we can try and reduce the overall impact of crime in our county,” English said.
“There would be sweeping impacts — and we’ve seen it in other counties, and it may take a couple of years — but then you start to see real significant impacts on livability and things like that because it’s going to impact public safety.”
“I feel strongly that NORCOR is managed and run well, that we’re lucky to have an efficient, progressive jail system in our communities that we do have,” said Commissioner Karen Joplin. But, she added, there is no more room to cut within the county’s budget to accommodate the increased subsidy, “that means those (cuts) are jobs ... I think that we’re in this position of not trying to justify whether NORCOR’s increases are legitimate and warranted — I completely understand that they are,” she said. “What I’m much more torn with is what will the county do without in order to accommodate those increases.”
The commissioners agreed that, concerning services, they consider NORCOR a part of the county and that cuts at NORCOR would negatively affect the county.
“It’s cutting services and it’s cutting things that we value, so no matter what we do, there’s no win, regardless of where we make those cuts,” said Perkins.
“I agree, there’s no win,” Joplin said.
When asked by Oates what he thought the best option was, Benton said, “I mostly wanted to hear from you because I didn’t have a good feeling of where to go.”
The commissioners agreed to take some time to think over what direction to give the NORCOR board and reconvene the following week — Thursday, May 2 at 2 p.m. — to talk further about the issue and decide on an official direction.