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Multnomah County will spend now, worry later

Officials use all of $52 million, leaving no reserves for the future

For $52 million, Multnomah County commissioners hope they bought more than just a year.

Though that figure represents just 4.6 percent of the county's $1.13 billion budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, it is believed to be an unprecedented amount of one time-only money in a single budget - made all the more notable by the fact that a large portion of it will be used to pay ongoing costs.

It is, in essence, the county government version of living paycheck to paycheck. The one-time money is there now - this past year largely because of unexpectedly high revenue from the county business income tax - but cannot be counted on to be there again next year or the year after.

And that revenue will pay for in, whole or in part, a range of things for which need won't end next year. Maintenance costs for the empty Wapato jail: $315,929. The Children's Assessment Center, which provides medical exams to kids in state custody: $155,027 of a total $405,022. And the serving of civil legal papers: $500,000 of the $4.34 million total cost.

'It's true: $52 million is a very high number for us,' county Finance Director Carol Ford said. 'I can't tell you it's the highest ever or anything like that, but it's up there. It is definitely not an insignificant number, but the intent was to have this next year to figure out what to do.'

County budget policy states outright that 'the County will fund ongoing programs with ongoing revenues.' But the loss of the expired county income tax, a cap on property-tax increases and existing projections for budget shortfalls created a reality that forced commissioners to abandon the policy in practice.

And with $52 million available but not renewable, the choice became whether to take a big hit this year and a smaller one next year, vice versa, or whether to spend it all and hope better solutions revealed themselves in the intervening year, county commissioners said.

Answers did not come easy.

'Those were the questions we asked ourselves a thousand different ways,' board of commissioners Chairwoman Diane Linn said.

County board will lose two

Linn and Commissioner Serena Cruz Walsh will leave the board at the end of the year - Linn after her primary-election loss to business consultant Ted Wheeler and Cruz Walsh because of term limits. The departures raised some concerns that the use of the full amount of one-time money available forced their successors to make the hard decisions.

'That simply is not the case,' Linn said. 'We didn't just pass this off for one year to provide cover for ourselves.'

Given the choice between offering programs for another year or cutting now to ease decision-making next year, she said, she realized that morality and a dedication to public service outweigh political convenience.

'This is a whole different kind of level of survival for some people,' she said. 'I'm not willing to cut them off any earlier than I have to, and we didn't have to do that this year. There is just no doubt that programs are going to have to be reduced and cut back, but we owe it to our constituents to take the hardship for ourselves and continue to provide them with services.'

Revenue source fluctuates

Wheeler said it perhaps would have been easier for county leaders to make some cuts now but that it was unproductive to dwell on it.

'The budget is the budget,' he said. 'It has already been adopted.'

But he said that relying too much on one-time money discouraged long-term planning and regional partnerships because it forced the county into a position where it could not offer any future funding guarantees. He said, too, that he was concerned about the reliance on the business-income tax, which fluctuates wildly - by as much as 40 percent - and was the source of the largest portion of the $52 million.

'It's extremely volatile,' Wheeler said. 'It's not something we can count on.'

That is a concern to several county departments and agencies, notably the sheriff's office. Of the programs the county will fund with one-time money, the sheriff's office is directly or indirectly affected by about half of them.

Wapato. The temporary holding center in Gresham. Criminal investigations. In all, the sheriff's office will receive $4.45 million directly in one-time money and will be affected as well by short-term funding of corrections health programs in the county health department.

Worries over future remain

While the $4.45 million is proportional to the percentage of one-time money in the total county general-fund budget, the source of that money for future years is unclear.

'The important thing is we have a budget we can work with this year,' said Christine Kirk, Sheriff Bernie Giusto's chief of staff. 'We definitely have some concerns going forward about where certain funds are going to come from and how that will impact our ability to serve the community. And the sheriff will work as best he can with the commissioners to make this work.'

The three-year temporary county income tax, called the I-tax, expired this year and was designed to benefit schools primarily. But it also supported 329 of the county's 1,690 available jail beds and 14 deputy positions. The budget for fiscal 2007 was written to prevent those losses, though it does not identify how to keep the positions or the beds in future years.

'It's a concern, obviously,' Kirk said. 'I don't think we're the only county agency that can say right now that we don't really know what we're going to do. But we have a year, and so does everyone else. We just hope we can find some answers by then.'

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