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St. Helens eyes serious reductions in budget

The St. Helens 2013-14 budget will draw down on reserves and take a hard look at painful reductions across departments.

This year, the city is looking at under-filling or not filling vacant positions. No matter what, the public will likely feel the effects through loss of service and fewer open hours in different departments, city officials say.

“There’s got to be a point at which we can’t reduce anymore,” said Michael Funderburg, a budget committee member, at the start of budget meetings April 16.

“We’re still in our recession,” explained Finance Director Jon Ellis. Columbia County lags behind Oregon in development and unemployment while Oregon itself lags behind the nation.

“There’s a lot of positive indicators but they haven’t come through our door yet,” Ellis said.

The St. Helens Police Department is taking some of the brunt of the tightening budget, he said.

A police department levy proposed last year failed to pass in the November election and, with the promotion of police officer Terry Moss from lieutenant to chief of police following the retirement of Chief Steve Salle April 1, the police department has yet another hole to fill but not the money to do so. Currently, the lieutenant duties have been split among three sergeants, but this is not ideal, Moss said.

A staffing study indicated a police department covering a city the size of St. Helens should employ a minimum of 20 officers — a number not seen since 2008. At its current number of 15 sworn officers, the department is at a staffing level last experienced in 1978.

Ellis presented a list of cuts, ranked from difficult to crippling, at the budget committee meeting April 16, reminding committee members that the cuts are up for debate.

“Nothing’s written in cement here,” he said.

At the top of the list, and representing the least damage in terms of cuts, was a proposal to not update the municipal court’s software. This was followed by a suggestion to under-fill the police lieutenant’s position with a police officer. The proposals continued, increasing in the severity of impact to city departments, and included reducing the hours worked by the city’s building official; eliminating the code enforcement officer; not filling a a part-time library assistant position following her retirement, a move that could cause the St. Helens Public Library to be closed two days a week instead of just one; and, at the end, delaying the hire of a 16th police officer until next January.

The next budget meeting will be April 30 at 6 p.m. in City Council Chambers.