County forced to make budget cuts

Polk County won't gain or lose too much, judging by this year's budget. But hard times could loom if current trends continue.

POLK COUNTY -- Polk County won't gain or lose too much, judging by this year's budget. But hard times could loom if current trends continue.

The County budget for the next fiscal year will grow by 5.62 percent, reflecting growing employee retirement and health insurance costs along with pay raises. State and federal grants will result in increases in areas such as mental health and the Healthy Start program for infants and their families. The sheriff's office and community development will face staff cuts.

County Administrator Greg Hansen calls this year's a "hold the line budget," though he admits offering the same level of services has become more challenging. The County has received less money from service fees than it has in the past. These include charges for building permits and recording fees.

The County gets its money from property taxes, timber revenues and some state and federal grants in addition to the service fees.

Polk elected officials -- the Board of Commissioners, Assessor, Clerk, and Treasurer -- will all receive 2.9 percent raises. The Sheriff will get a 4 percent raise.

The Sheriff will receive the largest raise because the position is the most underpaid, Hansen said. A survey of five similarly sized counties -- from Tillamook, with 21,500 people to Linn, with 91,000 -- showed Polk County paid less than the average for all positions. (please see chart) Polk County has about 49,500 people.

Meanwhile, employee costs have risen. Retirement costs paid by the County will go up 2 percent, after a rise last year of 5 percent. "We're adding $500,000 per year just for retirement," Hansen said, "which hurts."

Health insurance costs are up dramatically, Hansen said. Polk County has seen its BlueCross BlueShield policies increase 8 percent, while Kaiser Permanente plans rose 17 percent on some policies and 21 percent on others.

To cover these costs, Polk County will make some cuts. Community development will slightly scale back employment in its planning, building inspection, and environmental health divisions. The sheriff's office will lose one deputy.

While not facing cuts, some agencies will have to do without expected increases. The district attorney's office requested three additional positions: a deputy district attorney, a legal secretary and an office specialist. Early in the budget process, the budget committee, made up of the three county commissioners and three community members, recommended a legal secretary for the district attorney's office.

When final income and expenditure figures came in, however, the committee decided against creating a new position. "I'm disappointed," District Attorney John Fisher said. "It's a person we really need to have, and the budget committee and the commissioners agreed.

"But I understand why they did what they did," Fisher said. "I'm pretty sympathetic to the job the board and the budget committee do and I'm glad I'm not the one who has to make those decisions."

Polk Soil and Water Conservation District Chair Jock Dalton expected his organization to get more money this coming fiscal year, but the proposed budget leaves SWCD funding at its current level. The fiscal year begins July 1.

"We've been aggressively getting federal and state grants and trying to make ends meet," Dalton said. "I don't know if we can keep some of our staff. We'll have to scramble to get other grant money."

The Polk SWCD gives farmers and landowners background and expertise and works with local watershed councils to help protect the environment.

The Polk County Fair Board, which has had a rocky relationship with the county over fairgrounds maintenance, will receive $35,000 next fiscal year. "We're hoping that's adequate to maintain the fair," Hansen said.

Fairgrounds Manager Tina Andersen said the money all goes into maintaining the facility. She said the amount, $5,000 less than proposed, means "we may not be able to repair things that really need repair."

Andersen hopes this will be the fair board's last year of debt. To that end, it has put a cap on spending. "If we have to give something up, we'll just give it up," she said. "None of us wants to go back in and tell the commissioners we're in debt again."

Hansen painted a bleak picture for future budgets. "I only see things getting tougher from here," he said.

"I see this as a downward trend. We may have to make tougher decisions year after year.

"There are needs out there we're not meeting, not because we don't want to, but because we can't afford to.

"I don't want to see one less deputy on the road."


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