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Commitment will keep county solvent

MY VIEW • Efforts must be made to maintain services despite budget cutbacks

It's impossible to escape the current economic pressures. We hear every day about people losing their homes, businesses becoming insolvent, and countless ripple effects facing retailers, restaurants and others.

Like any household, we must take a clearheaded look at Multnomah County's financial obligations and bring them in line with the money we have available. For us, too, this will involve sacrifices and difficulty.

By law, Multnomah County is required to provide a host of important safety net and public safety services to our community.

These include monitoring offenders who have been incarcerated, providing basic health care, mental health and substance abuse treatments, maintaining court facilities, and assisting the elderly and vulnerable.

Our responsibilities are vast and varied. Our entire community has a stake in how effective we are at executing them.

There is no question that the current economic crisis will challenge our ability to deliver services effectively. Our revenues are quickly declining, especially those from the Business Income Tax and from state government.

The county's budget shortfall for the next fiscal year is projected to be more than $35 million. That gap will only grow as the state reduces its contributions to health and human service programs operated by the county.

Unfortunately, demand for our safety net services will continue to grow as jobs are lost in the community and poverty increases.

It will be difficult for us to fill the gaps because we have experienced eight years of progressive budget reductions as a result of our structural deficit and other challenges.

A small consolation is that Multnomah County was not caught flat-footed by the economic downturn. During the past two years, we have cut spending, controlled costs and become more innovative to help stabilize the county's financial position.

We have renegotiated unfavorable contracts, increased fees and increased our productivity. This year, we reduced spending by more than $18 million, and used 'one-time only' funds to pay down debt, lowering our interest costs by millions annually.

If we had not taken these steps, our financial position would have been much worse today, but we can't stop there. I am not waiting for next year's budget process to further stabilize our financial situation, and I have directed county departments to cut this year's budget by $12 million immediately.

We are reevaluating all of our major projects to seek savings. A scaled-back East County Justice Facility could cost 30 percent less. I am pursuing partnerships to open the Wapato facility in a cost-effective manner and looking at more affordable phased replacement plans for the Sellwood Bridge.

As we consider these actions, we also must stay true to our core mission and possibly end services that are not essential.

When budget deliberations begin with our new Board of County Commissioners in January, I will retain the values of protecting the most vulnerable in our community - the frail, elderly, impoverished and those who live with mental illness - among others.

We will invest only in programs that work. We will strive to build cost-sharing partnerships with other governments and organizations.

We will seek to reform inequitable systems that tax two homeowners with identically valued homes at drastically different rates. We will be even more accountable to taxpayers with how we spend their dollars.

Multnomah County will manage its way through these difficult times by living within our means.

I am confident that we will emerge from this crisis a more focused, leaner, and more innovative organization that is better able to serve the needs of our community.

Ted Wheeler has served as Multnomah County chairman since January 2007. He lives in Southwest Portland.