Over the last five years, many people have probably gotten tired of hearing me advocate for long-term budget planning. That's why I'm excited to say that this year's budget reflects a big step forward. There has been amazing support and participation from your commissioners, county department heads, employees, the community members on the budget committee, and especially our County Treasurer Kathy Gray.
The Crook County Budget Committee does great work, and citizen oversight helps with transparency and accountability. I believe the court also needs to be fully engaged in the budget process.
The county treasurer and I prioritized meeting with every department head to discuss the current needs and future opportunities. These meetings helped the treasurer and I to understand current and future costs. I think it also helped department heads understand better how their budgets impacted the county as a whole. Through these individual meetings, we were able to reduce the time spent by the budget committee from four days to one and make sure that our volunteers had the information that they needed to do their work efficiently.
Another resource that aided our process was Andy Parks. Andy has helped the city of Prineville transform its budget into the award-winning budget they have today. He provided expert advice to the court on ways to make the process more effective, efficient, transparent and easy to understand.
We worked with department heads to add narratives to a budget that traditionally only contained numbers. These narratives explain how money has been spent historically, what money is being spent today, and what the department's plans are for the future.
These narratives will make it much easier for Crook County citizens to understand why and where the county spends your tax dollars.
This year, we established a well-defined calendar with firm deadlines for all the events and meetings required in the budget process. This not only helped department heads understand what was required of them but also helped the court and county treasurer be more efficient with their time.
We also added some budget flexibility to incentivize finding savings and efficiently utilizing programming dollars. If the department head is able to run their department on less than the approved budget, they have the ability to apply those savings to future non-operational needs. We think that this new program will help to insure that every dollar is being used efficiently.
One of my top priorities is for the county to be putting money into reserves every year. This year, we were able to put over $400,000 into reserve. I would like to continue to grow this number. These reserves are critical to the stability of our county as we look to the future.
During the Great Recession, the county was blessed to have employees that were willing to sacrifice a portion of their employee benefits in order to help the county maintain financial stability. These concessions were made with the hope and promise that when the county was in a stronger financial situation they would be restored. Last year, the county was able to restore a portion of those lost 401(k) benefits. This year, we are able to restore the entire amount of the lost healthcare benefits.
Our next step is to do a countywide compensation study. We have many talented employees at the county, and we owe it to them to make sure that they are receiving a fair wage for their work.
While we made great strides in our budget and budgeting process, we will continue to refine our changes while constantly asking how we can do it better and make it easier for folks to understand. We know that we are spending your hard-earned dollars, and we need to be good and responsible stewards of those funds.
To aid in our goal of transparency, we will be releasing an eight-page summary of our budget that will be distributed through the Central Oregonian, the Prineville-Crook County Chamber of Commerce, and in the communities of Prineville, Post, Paulina and Powell Butte.
This summary is a new addition to our process in 2017. Although distributing this document is not required by law, we think it is an opportunity to raise awareness of how funds are used and gain insight and feedback from the community.
Over the last year, there have been a lot of questions regarding natural resource planning and working with the federal government to better utilize our natural resources and maintain access on and to our local public lands.
A group of citizens in the community formed a committee and began drafting a natural resources plan. Eight months ago, that committee presented a draft plan to the previous county court and have been working on revisions since the original presentation.
While the remaining members of the committee have been working on revising the plan, the county has been working with Karen Budd-Fallon, an attorney from Cheyenne, Wyoming. Karen has a national reputation for working with counties to make sure that federal regulations are not too burdensome and representing counties in litigation when they are.
Karen has a proven track record of working with small rural communities to help them use coordination and natural resource plans to work with the federal government to better utilize natural resources and protect access to public lands. Karen spent three years with the Reagan administration in the US Department of Interior. Recently she served as legal counsel to the Arizona/New Mexico coalition of counties for stable economic growth.
We hope that coupling Karen's expertise with the local input from the natural resources committee will place the county in a stronger position to advocate for local interests in utilizing our public lands.
Seth Crawford is the Crook County Judge. He can be reached at 541-447-6555.