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If you think this year is bad, wait until 2012

Tough times on the horizon for county department budgets
by: Stover E. Harger III UPHILL CLIMB – An inmate climbs the stairs in the Columbia County Jail. The jail’s budget, like other county departments, faces an uncertain future based on current fiscal projections.

Five months into the current dismal budget cycle, one unavoidable conclusion is haunting many Columbia County department leaders: Next year is going to be worse.

That's particularly solemn news for Sheriff Jeff Dickerson, who has had to completely reprioritize the Sheriff's Office based on projected revenue declines. With behind-the-scenes budget discussions already occurring, Dickerson says the only way he'll be able to stabilize the Sheriff's Office and Columbia County Jail, even at current reduced capacities, is if the Columbia County Board of Commissioners pledges next year revenue at current levels for his office and the jail.

Even, he says, if other departments and county functions have to take big hits, or disappear altogether.

'It might be very difficult to get a wedding license in Columbia County, but at least if someone picks up the phone [to make an emergency call], there will be somebody going,' he says. 'If public safety isn't the most important thing we do, then I really am in the wrong business.'Rural counties across Oregon are bracing for the likelihood federal payments, which are received based on the presence of Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service lands, would not be renewed next year due to tightening federal fiscal policy. The so-called county payments provided as much as $2.4 million annually to the county at their peak. The payment expired in September, and revenue from the last round is expected to post this month.

This year, the county received $650,000 from the payments, down from an initial projection of $800,000. Next year, counties are on deck to receive nothing.

The Sheriff's Office and jail take up 25 percent of the county's general fund revenue. In the current budget cycle $1.7 million was allocated to the Sheriff's Office and, separately, $1.2 million to the Columbia County Jail. The general fund jail allocation represents 27 percent of the total $4.3 million, the rest made up of departmental revenue, such as U.S. Marshal's Office bed rentals.

Further reductions, as Dickerson considers it, would result in considerable layoffs. And, though few want to discuss it, there has been talk about having to possibly make a choice between funding Sheriff's Office law enforcement or the jail, not both. The jail, it's worth noting, still has 10 years worth of debt hanging over it.

It's not just jeopardized timber payments and a stretched general fund dampening next year's outlook.

'There are so many different pieces that play into it,' says Columbia County Commissioner Tony Hyde, pointing to state level cuts across several departments. 'You take that away, and the general fund being stagnant, and you've got issues.'

In fact, just Tuesday Dickerson said he learned of a $50,000 reduction over three years in the state allocation from the Oregon State Marine Board for Columbia River patrols.

Also, as both Hyde and Dickerson point out, USM arrests are down, as are longer term federal inmate jail stays, and the agency could reduce its reliance on bed rentals at the jail in favor of using the Sheridan-based federal detention facility.

'We're getting it from a hundred different directions. There is nothing you can just point your finger to,' Hyde says.

Columbia County Commissioner Earl Fisher is spearheading a review of the county government-financed portion of law enforcement in the rural parts of the county.

Fisher met with city representatives in October to explore a concept that would have had city police forces expand patrols along the lines of school district boundaries. General fund revenue slated for the Sheriff's Office next year would instead be distributed to the cities' forces, which would effectively gut the Sheriff's Office to a skeleton crew to carry out only state-mandated services, such as warrant service, search and rescue operations and protection for the state courts.

In the end, however, city leaders shied away from the idea, Fisher says. For one, there wouldn't be enough money to make it worth the police agencies' efforts to expand into the unincorporated parts of the county.

And it would be a large expansion, considering unincorporated areas make up 98 percent of the county's 688 total square miles of land and water, patrols on the latter occurring solely through the Sheriff's Office's marine program.

Second, the agencies were loath to expand services outside of their limits, considering city residents pay specific taxes for law enforcement services.

'They all had the same concern. They don't want to reduce the protection for the citizens in their city,' Fisher says. 'We're looking at everything we can do to beef up security and beef up protection, but the fact is the money is really thin.'

Dickerson knew about the meeting but opted to stay away, having expressed his opinion in other venues, he says. He says, however, talks are ongoing with the county, though he has no idea where they are headed.

'We're trying to work it out with the commissioners,' he says. 'Part of it is, I just don't know.'

'We're just up against a rock and a hard place,' says Fisher. 'I can't see the likelihood of being able to boost the sheriff's portion of the budget.'