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County commission poised to adopt $1 million budget

Board eyes 3 percent increase in overall spending for 2016-17

Washington County is poised to adopt an annual budget of almost $1 billion, a little over half of which will be for operations in Oregon’s second most populous county.

The county budget committee, which consists of the five elected commissioners and five public members, will hear testimony on May 19. Action by the committee will put the budget in the hands of commissioners, who can make adjustments before the start of the budget year July 1.

On May 19, testimony also will be heard on budgets for four special districts governed by the commissioners and others, but are not countywide.

Despite a net increase of 3 percent in projected spending, the proposed budget generally holds the line on services and the number of full-time employees at just under 2,000.

But the budget does propose a little more money — a total of $1.3 million — for a few new initiatives. They are housing and homelessness, citizen participation, and a new mental health urgent care center that is likely to open after the end of the budget year on June 30, 2017.

“It’s very complex,” County Administrator Robert Davis said at the end of the budget presentation on Tuesday, May 10. “We have people who work on this almost the year around.”

In addition to the proposed operating budget of $536.3 million, the total budget of $985.8 million incorporates capital spending and nonoperating costs such as health care, insurance, public-pension contributions and vehicle-fleet replacements.

The operating budget consists of the general fund, which comes largely from property taxes and contains most of the county’s discretionary money, and special funds earmarked for single purposes. Often these are state and federal grants.

Even some of the property tax money is earmarked, such as the local-option levies that county voters renewed last year for support of law enforcement and library services. Voter approval of those levies, which take effect with the 2016 tax bills, will allow for some additions. These levies are in addition to the permanent tax rate of $2.25 per $1,000 of assessed value.

But a 6.4 percent growth in countywide assessed values this past year, more than projected last year, has generated more property tax collections for Washington County and other local governments.

“The combination of these new resources with the growing presence of several acute social issues represents a challenge and an opportunity to our organization and directly frames many of the new initiatives and priorities included in this year’s proposed budget,” Davis wrote in the official budget message.

New initiatives

Just under $900,000 in new money will be targeted to several programs aimed at promoting development of affordable housing — defined as costing no more than 30 percent of monthly household income — and reducing homelessness.

Among them are $300,000 for a fund to advance production of lower-cost housing with other government and nonprofit agencies, $150,000 for short-term assistance to about 50 families — earning 50 percent or less of the area’s median income — that already pay more than half their income on rent, and $75,000 for Community Connect, the centralized assessment system for homeless individuals and families.

Commissioner Greg Malinowski acknowledged that the efforts will make only small inroads into the larger problem of housing affordability in the county.

He said most housing under construction is geared toward the top 20 to 25 percent of wage earners in the county, and there is a severe shortage of available housing for the rest.

“Households earning the average median wage cannot afford the average median home,” he said.

Washington County is the recent recipient of $3.4 million in a federal grant for assistance to homeless people, although some of the money will carry over into the 2017-18 budget cycle.

Among the other new initiatives proposed for funding:

• $200,000 for the first six months of operation of a new mental health urgent care center, although the center is expected to open in the next budget year. A location has not yet been determined, but officials say it will be modeled on similar centers in Multnomah and Clackamas counties.

• $237,516 for the transfer of the community engagement program, which provides support for citizen participation organizations, from the Oregon State University Extension Service to a new unit within the county administrative office. OSU Extension will end its involvement after 40 years. Some welcome the proposal; others are concerned about it being placed in a county office.

• $20,000 more for the Westside Cultural Alliance, which now gets a county allocation of $12,000. The Cultural Coalition of Washington County and the Regional Arts & Culture Council also get support, but the proposed budget offers no new money to them.

Although on paper, the total budget appears to drop 1 percent from $995 million in the year ending June 30, it actually goes up by about 3 percent once a one-time debt refinancing is subtracted from the budget.

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