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Hood River County Board of Commissioners met July 1 for a special work session.

While Hood River County has yet to make major cuts to its 2019-20 budget, some services are already taking a hit because county staff can’t fill vacant positions.

Currently, the county is having trouble filling four open positions — two in Records and Assessment, one in Community Development and one in Juvenile Corrections — financed primarily through the General Fund and included on the potential cut list for the 2019-20 budget.

While the vacant positions are currently funded in the county’s 2019-20 budget, the commission does intend to make significant cuts to that budget in the coming weeks.

“When we do interviews now, people are smart enough to ask the question because they know the county has financial problems: Is this position potentially going to be eliminated?” said County Administrator Jeff Hecksel to the Hood River County Board of Commissioners at a special July 1 work session.

To decide what positions and services will be cut, the commission agreed to begin the process of prioritizing all of the services that the county provides. “It’s an extremely valuable tool from a management standpoint,” Hecksel said. Hecksel will gather information from department heads and assemble a detailed list of all county services, and then each commissioner will be asked to rank those services by level of importance.

“It really is an intrinsically-value driven exercise for each of you,” Hecksel explained to the commissioners. “It’s really valuable and I’ve found that it works. You know, when you start adding criteria and you start adding numbers, it gets too complex and people get bogged down in all that. It’s just your gut reaction to the services…(and) it sort of naturally falls out because everybody looks at things differently, and that’s what you want because that’s what the public does.”

Hecksel estimated that it will take approximately 30 days to compile the list of county services. “The process is actually pretty simple except for the first part — the first part takes time and effort on the part of staff to define what the services are,” he said.

While this process will help the county make future cuts, it doesn’t help the departments that are struggling to maintain the current service level in the meantime.

The director and deputy director of Records and Development were among the 20 or so county department representatives attending Monday’s work session, and spoke specifically of the problems the staffing shortage is causing their department.

“There is an impact,” said Chief Deputy Director Kim Kean, “… and people in our office can’t take vacations, they can’t leave. It makes it very difficult.”

“The same statements that you’ve just made are coming at us from all the department heads,” responded Commissioner Karen Joplin. “I don’t want you to feel like we don’t understand, and we are hearing all of the constraints and challenges and difficulties, and … I am sorry. I’m really sorry that this is where we’re at.”

The commissioners discussed whether or not to intentionally leave these positions vacant and implement a hiring freeze until they could decide what specific positions will be cut.

Although there is value in filling the vacant positions to continue providing current services, Commissioner Bob Benton said, “I couldn’t tell an employee coming in that the position probably wouldn’t be around next year.”

Regarding the potential hiring freeze, Commissioner Rich McBride said, “We have already budgeted these positions … the money has been allocated, we’ve all agreed to that, and we have not gone through this process that we’re talking about right now, so we don’t know what our decisions are going to be in the future. I don’t believe it is the time to just have a wholesale stop-the-presses, we aren’t going to allow any of our departments to move forward because we haven’t done this homework yet.”

“I don’t disagree with what you’re saying,” Benton responded, “I just don’t want to get in the position where we’re investing a lot of time if bringing somebody on into a position if that position may not exist a year from now.”

While the commission came to the consensus that they do want to fill these positions, Hecksel explained that the county still may not be able to do so due to a lack of interested applicants.

The county does disclose to applicants whether the position they’re applying for is on the potential list to be cut, “and if they take the position, then they accept that risk,” Hecksel said.

“The reality is we have a hard time filling these positions, so then we have to find workarounds to continue to be able to provide service,” he said. “…Because we haven’t cut anything, we’re still tasked with providing the service, and so we’ll find the best way we can do that so we can still do what we’re supposed to do.”

“It’s just a messy time right now,” McBride said. “We’re trying to set ourselves up for our future and we don’t know what our future is going to be yet.”

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