In preparation of major county budget cuts, the Hood River County Board of Commissioners is gathering for a special work session on Monday, Oct. 7 to prioritize all of the services that Hood River County provides.

County staff have spent the last few months developing a detailed list of all the services Hood River County provides and, during the Oct. 7 work session, the commissioners will be asked to rank those services by level of importance.

When cuts are made, the services at the bottom of the list will be the first to go. 

“It really is an intrinsically-value driven exercise for each of you,” explained County Administrator Jeff Hecksel to the commissioners during a July 1 work session, where he first pitched the idea of the prioritization exercise.

“It’s really valuable and I’ve found that it works,” he said. “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.”

Back in June, the county commission approved a $13.48 million budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year that prioritized maintaining the county’s current service level, under the condition that they would be taking steps in the near future towards making significant cuts.

In order to avoid substantial cuts, the county would need to fill the “hole” in the budget — which includes the total county deficit (approximately $1.15 million) and a $500,000 investment in capital — for a total just under $1.65 million.

The adopted budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year was developed when the county commissioners still had hopes that their two revenue measures — a local option levy and a Prepared Food and Beverage Tax — would pass on the May ballot and provide the county with some additional funding. Both measures failed.

No decisions have been made yet on whether or not to rework the levy proposal, the more successful of the two failed measures, for a future ballot.

Regardless, the county’s budget is stable for the time being, due to a plan set up by the commission several years ago to limit withdraws from the county’s Reserve Fund to a maximum of $750,000 until 2020, in order to give the county some time to come up with a solution to its major budget deficit; but the county commissioners agreed that beginning to gradually downsize now was better than forcing departments to face sudden cuts when the money runs out next year.

“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 at the June commission meeting where the budget was approved.

Some county departments have already begun to decrease service levels because they can’t fill vacant positions. “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?” Hecksel said at the July 1 work session. Part of the reasoning behind doing this prioritization exercise is to determine which vacated positions will continue to be funded by the county’s general fund, and which won’t.

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

The work session will begin at 1:30 p.m. in the Hood River County Administration building, 601 State St., Hood River.

The packet for the work session, including the complete list of county services, is available online at the county’s website, Hover over the County Departments tab and click on “Board of Commissioners,” follow the link to “Meeting Agendas and Minutes,” click on “Board of Commissioner Meeting Agendas” and download “10.07.19 BOC Packet.pdf.”

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