After meeting for another discussion on NORCOR’S cost increases and a proposed subsidy increase for Hood River County, the Board of Commissioners accepted an unofficial proposal made by Commissioner Rich McBride: Asking the NORCOR board to consider reducing the subsidy increase to $150,000 — about half of what NORCOR initially asked for.

“I believe that if we contributed $150 (thousand) and everybody else contributed their percentages accurately, they (NORCOR) can get most of the way to doing what they need to do,” McBride said at the April 25 special meeting.

When asked if he thought that solution would work, Commissioner Bob Benton said, “it’s possible that services will be reduced…I can’t tell you for sure, but it’s possible.” He added that the NORCOR board is looking for additional funding sources.

“I think it’s a good compromise,” said Commissioner Les Perkins, “I mean, there are no good options.”

When asked his opinion on asking that the subsidy be increased by $150,000 instead of $299,012, Hood River County Sheriff Matt English, “I think there’s enough in flux with the (NORCOR) budget and revenue that there’s the potential for things to work themselves out” in the NORCOR budget.

Benton, Hood River County’s representative on the NORCOR board, came before his fellow commissioners last week to ask for direction to take back to NORCOR. He presented a couple of options: NORCOR could take to drastically reduce the budget: Closing the juvenile center or cutting beds in the adult facility. The third option was to agree to pay the subsidy increase in full, which would worsen Hood River County’s already dismal budget situation.

“I struggle deeply with all three options … every one of them would increase costs in other ways,” said Commissioner Karen Joplin.

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 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.

“It’s the same issue we’re facing” at the county, said Commissioner Les Perkins of NORCOR’s budget issues, citing decreases in funding coupled with cost increases.

The cost increases have previously been absorbed by NORCOR’s outside contracts — including the controversial ICE contract, NORCOR’s single highest revenue source in the 2018/19 fiscal year at $730,000 (the next highest outside revenue source is an outside contract with Benton County for jail services, which amounted to $570,530 in revenue for the 2018-19 fiscal year). Looking into the upcoming fiscal year, the cost increases reached a point where NORCOR needs more from the counties to make ends meet.

“I understand the increase … and they haven’t raised the subsidy costs in several years,” said Sheriff Matt English.

The last increase in Hood River County’s NORCOR subsidy happened between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 fiscal years, where it went up from $1,422,520 to $1,533,397, and it has stayed at that number through the 2018-19 fiscal year.

Given that the NORCOR board grants Hood River County’s request, the county’s NORCOR subsidy will increase to $1,683,397 in the 2019-20 fiscal year.

Benton agreed to take the county commission’s request back to the NORCOR board and the other counties, but said, “I don’t know if the subsidy is optional necessarily. It depends on what the board decides.” He said that the other counties, especially Wasco County, have been understanding of Hood River’s budget crisis and have agreed to match their subsidies to whatever Hood River County commits.

County Administrator Jeff Hecksel said that the results of the upcoming special district election, where the county has two revenue measures on the ballot, will determine Hood River County’s future with NORCOR “because that (the election) determines everything,” he said.

Benton responded that, since NORCOR is currently in the middle of its budget process, the county’s decision couldn’t wait until after the election.

Perkins added, “The reality is we need to make a decision and stick with it regardless” because, even if the measures do pass, it will take a couple of years at least for the new revenue to take effect, and Hood River County will have to have a strategy for dealing with cost increases in the future, he said.

“I’m sick to my stomach going through this at NORCOR, same as Hood River County,” Benton said, adding that everyone involved is doing the best they can with the funds they have. “It’s just sad where we’re at, it really is,” he said, “it’s tough times.”

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