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Oregon counties saw it coming

Oregon counties are doing what they’ve always done: more with less

by: Mike McArthur - Mike McArthur is the Executive Director of the Association of Oregon Counties. He can be reached at: 503-585-8351 or by e-mail at: 
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There is a persistent and pernicious misrepresentation that Oregon counties should have planned for the loss of funds from the "county payments" act when it expired in September, 2006. The implication is that counties have done nothing to prepare for the possibility of losing $108 million a year to county general funds and $92 million a year to county road funds.
   Let's be clear, Oregon counties have been preparing for this day.
   Lake County downsized its road crew from 42 to 16 over the last six years. At the same time, the road fund reserve, saved over a 7-year period, will last a mere two years.
   Josephine County has restructured its workforce, reducing the number of county employees from nearly 700 two years ago, to just over 350 today. Now, Josephine County's workforce will be reduced to just over 200 by mid-summer. The ability to fight crime will be severely impacted because of deep cuts to the sheriff, district attorney and juvenile justice budgets. Public health services will be cut in half and county roads will not be maintained. In addition, public libraries and the county fairgrounds will close.
   Douglas, Coos, Harney, Grant, Wheeler, Klamath, Lane, Lincoln, Wallowa, Crook, Umatilla, Linn and Morrow are some of the others who have built reserves. Some counties have not been able to establish reserves. But not for a lack of effort. Structural handcuffs imposed by Measures 5 and 50 have stymied counties caught in the financial abyss.
   Oregon counties have gone to their voters asking to replace the lost revenues with local taxes. Lane County recently asked voters to approve an income tax for public safety and Jackson County asked for a library levy. Both measures failed. Other counties are preparing to ask their voters to approve local option levies in the coming months.
   Thanks to county payments and good management, Oregon counties helped bail out the state during the recent recession by giving up a portion of our state/county shared revenues. Counties also agreed to temporarily fund the Governor's Economic Revitalization Team. Meanwhile, state funding was eliminated for assistant district attorneys and the bridge inspection program. In 1996, counties assumed administration of the community corrections system. The state has underfunded that obligation virtually every biennium since.
   Meanwhile, Oregon counties coped with underfunded mental health programs that meant mentally ill people landed in county jails rather than treatment programs, filling jail beds reserved for criminals who were instead put back on our streets.
   Expectations for reauthorization by Congress in 2006 were high. It didn't happen.
   County governments are doing what counties have always done: determine how best to deliver the services people need and are able to pay for. Counties have not beseeched the legislature to replace revenues. However, counties have asked the state to protect shared revenues, add no new mandates and relieve unnecessary burdens.
   Pointing fingers doesn't help the situation. Counties could point fingers in many directions, but instead have put those fingers to work, finding ways to manage a terrible situation. Oregon counties remain focused on the future.