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County faces tough choices

Funding gap pits sheriff's office, social programs against each other

A recent public scene pitted funding goals for the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office against nonprofit groups working to end domestic violence and child abuse.

Two executive directors of nonprofits in Oregon City went up the hill to Clackamas County's headquarters to lobby county commissioners for $500,000 annually to fulfill the county's 'urgent and emerging need.' Children's Center leader Tonia Hunt said that she's seen a 70-percent increase in the number of CCSO referrals.

'We're going to have to start turning away children, which none of us want to do, or we're going to have to find some other way to meet that need,' Hunt said.

But these gap funds for nonprofit providers were initially proposed to come out of an $8.9-million levy that charges county property owners an extra 24.8 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

Sheriff Craig Roberts and county commissioners worried about renewed support on the November ballot for the five-year levy that passed with 52.89 percent of the vote in November of 2006 after failing in 2002. Roberts called county voters 'very conservative' and praised the 'tremendous job (of deputies) taking those kids under protective custody.'

'In these tough economic times, as we know, if you do something over here, there's going to be a consequence over there,' he said.

Roberts estimated the impact to CCSO at 11 staff positions.

County Chair Charlotte Lehan was in favor of providing gap funding if it could be identified without impacting CCSO.

'We're all put into a bind to have to choose,' Lehan said. 'These are pressing needs…and I think it warrants a levy in May for those issues.'

Hunt said she and Clackamas Women's Services Executive Director Melissa Erlbaum would appreciate a commitment to referring nonprofit causes to the ballot six months after voters decide on CCSO funding. They promised to submit ballot language to commissioners this month.

County voters could amend the levy to designate funding for child abuse prevention and domestic violence providers, who would compete through Clackamas County officials for the funds.

Based on survey results from the police union and conversations with other commissioners, Ann Lininger is setting up for what may be the signature issue of her last year in office. Lininger has put public safety and domestic violence issues at the top of her funding priority list.

'If you can't come in through the door, then go in through the window,' she said.

Commissioner Paul Savas he was looking forward to a larger policy discussion: 'I'd love to see more material,' he said, 'I think we all collectively recognize the need.'

'We've addressed this issue at least two times, and I'd like to see us move forward as best we can,' Commissioner Jim Bernard said, agreeing with the recommendation by county staff to renew the levy.

'That's probably the most conservative way to go and the most prudent,' said Nancy Newton, deputy county administrator. County counsel could draft a renewal within a few days, but a board resolution to amend the levy would be more complicated.

Commissioners have to decide before Sept. 8 in order to be considered for the November ballot, so the board is looking to pass a resolution at its Aug. 11 or 18 regular meetings. The board agreed to have another discussion session Aug. 9, where they could decide what to vote on during the regular meeting.

Commissioner Jim Bernard expressed his preference for nonprofit funding 'rather than put people behind bars where they can become better criminals,' but he noted that commissioners 'don't have the right to tell an elected official (CCSO sheriff) how to spend his money; we just budget the money.'

'Logic doesn't always win elections,' Bernard added. 'The fact that it's the best investment to protect our children doesn't matter.'