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County chair takes aim at cost-of-living adjustments

Jeff Cogen says state, federal cuts could force funding changes
by: Tribune file photo Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen released his proposed county budget Thursday.

Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen is asking all county employees to forego cost-of-living increases for the coming year, to help cope with expected state and federal funding cuts.

Cogen issued his proposed $1.5 billion county budget Thursday for the fiscal year beginning July 1. He is relying on an array of administrative consolidations, including a pay freeze for supervisory and nonunion employees, to balance the budget without significant service cuts. Total county employment would decline by the equivalent of 33 full-time positions.

However, Cogen built his budget without knowing the extent of looming state and federal budget cuts, and those entities fund close to 30 percent of the county's programs.

The county must rewrite its budget after July, when the impact of state funding cuts are known, Cogen said.

Cogen has asked the two unions representing county workers now in collective bargaining talks to forego cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs, though eligible workers could still get merit or step raises. He also asked other unions in the middle of labor contracts to reopen those deals to cancel COLAs.

Michael Hanna, who represents 2,800 county workers in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 88, said it's too soon for his members to evaluate the COLA freeze, until learning about the potential impacts of state budget cuts.

However, he said it was fair to ask all the unions to consider the freeze, rather than just those in the midst of bargaining.

The county has managed to keep its benefits costs from skyrocketing. It projects a 4.5 percent increase in medical and dental costs, and no increase in the Public Employees Retirement System or PERS rate.Despite the austere times, there's funding for a new Sellwood Bridge and East County Courthouse in Gresham's Rockwood neighborhood.

The county also will contribute money to add a SUN after-school program at David Douglas High.

Cogen provided full funding for the justice system's temporary-hold facility in Gresham. However, Cogen said he'll ask East County cities that benefit from the facility to share the costs in future years.

Cogen said he's open to proposing new taxes once the extent of state and federal budget cuts are known. One possibility is a new Multnomah County library district, which voters showed initial support for last November, which would free up money in the regular county budget. The county must put a library funding measure on the ballot in November or next May, Cogen said, because the existing library levy expires next June.

County commissioners will consider either another library levy or asking voters to approve permanent funding for the library district.