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Commissioners lean toward added jail staffing

Opening 26 beds among spending proposals that budget panel will consider.

Even as Clackamas County officials wrestle with how to balance the sheriff’s budget in the coming year, commissioners say they are interested in adding more money to staff 26 more beds in the county jail.

Commissioners John Ludlow and Jim Bernard, who face off in a Nov. 8 runoff for board chairman, are united on this point.

“I believe that this calendar year, we should open up those jail beds if you can,” said Ludlow, the current board chairman.

“More people with mental health problems are going to jail and we have no way to deal with them,” said Bernard, a commissioner who led a four-way race but did not win a majority on May 17. “I think we need to find a way to open these beds.”

The proposal by Sheriff Craig Roberts, who seeks $1 million for six more deputies, will be among a host of “policy proposals” awaiting consideration by the budget committee on Tuesday, June 7.

The committee, which consists of the five elected commissioners and five public members, has reviewed regular spending requests by the sheriff and other county department for the year that starts July 1.

The county’s proposed all-funds budget is near the $1 billion mark, although almost $300 million of that goes to seven special-purpose districts overseen by the county and is not available for general spending.

The “policy proposals” are for added spending on top of the regular budgets. But only nine of them are recommended in the budget presented by County Administrator Don Krupp — and even Krupp proposes to fund those by tapping about $1 million from the county’s contingency fund.

The original wish list of 38 proposals submitted by county departments topped $5.5 million, and departments withdrew 23 from consideration.

But some of those original proposals, including two offered by the sheriff, will be considered anyway. Krupp said if the budget committee chooses to fund any of them, proposed spending will have to be cut somewhere else.

However, the budget committee requested a list of contingency funds that total almost $60 million. Much of that money, however, cannot be tapped because of various restrictions on their sources.

“We realize it’s a big ask,” Chris Hoy, the sheriff’s chief deputy, told the budget committee about the $1 million for the extra jail staffing. “But it’s all or nothing.”

Undersheriff Matt Ellington said, however, that it would take several months to hire the six deputies if the positions are authorized — so the actual cost during the budget year would be less than $1 million.

Ludlow said he was banking on the county’s property tax collections this fall to come in higher than projected by the assessor — as they have in the past two years — and he would be willing to spend it on the added staffing.

“But we need to make sure we can sustain that funding,” Commissioner Paul Savas said.

The jail in Oregon City now operates 465 beds. Roberts proposes that with six more deputies, the jail could open 14 beds for female inmates and 12 beds designated for medical cases, which likely would be for inmates with severe mental illnesses. Those 12 beds have never been used.

“Our goal is to get those beds open,” Roberts said, so that the jail can slow the rate of forced releases, which occur when the jail is at capacity.

According to figures Roberts presented to the budget committee, forced releases will jump from 1,857 recorded in 2014-15 to 2,691 by the end of the current budget year on June 30.

Budget support

The sheriff’s regular budget is in two parts.

A local-option levy of $10.7 million supports a total of 59 positions — 31 at the jail, 18 patrol deputies, and 10 investigators.

This will be the final year of the countywide levy, which is at 24 cents per $1,000 of taxable property value. Roberts said he would like to have a five-year renewal placed on the Nov. 8 ballot, and supporters are gauging whether voters would support a slightly higher rate that would generate more money to offset rising personnel expenses.

Although the levy expires in mid-2017, waiting until a May 2017 election would trigger uncertainty in planning the sheriff’s 2017-18 budget, which would normally be done before then.

The other source is the sheriff’s operating fund proposed at almost $75 million — 72 percent of which comes from the property-tax-dependent general fund — and supports 387 positions.

(The sheriff also gets $6.6 million from taxes generated by the county's enhanced law enforcement district, but that money can be spent only where property owners pay the tax. The 34 deputies patrol unincorporated areas, plus Happy Valley and Johnson City, which are under contract.)

Roberts, Krupp and their staffs closed what had been a gap of almost $2 million between available money and proposed spending in the budget. However, the budget still assumes a reduction in $401,460 in employee benefits.

County budget manager Diane Padilla said those savings would come largely from vacancies, not by actual cuts in benefits such as health insurance and pension contributions. She said in a large department such as the sheriff, there usually are vacancies during the year.

Frank Magdlen, the public member who leads the budget committee, said he has concerns about the ongoing difficulties in balancing the sheriff's budget. “I am trying to figure out what are the key components of the budget that aren’t working,” he said.

Another factor driving up expenses is the desire of the sheriff — and the commissioners — to achieve full staffing for the office. Ellington said there are 15 current vacancies — eight uniformed positions, mostly patrol deputies, and seven others.

But a lower vacancy rate yields less in cost savings from unfilled positions.

“We are committed to working with the county administrator during the year to manage everything as carefully as we can,” Roberts said. “But it is going to be a challenge.”

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