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Columbia County transit fund, fair fund come up short at fiscal year due to revenue cycles

County commissioners approved $430,000 in loans from the general fund to cover budget deficits in both the transit and county fair funds.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - A CC Rider bus makes its way through downtown Scappoose. The bus agency will receive a $400,000 loan from Columbia County general funds to cover an end-of-year defecit.On a consent agenda vote Wednesday, June 27, commissioners approved supplemental budget transfers and two loans — one for $30,000 to the annual Columbia County Fair & Rodeo, and another for $400,000 to CC Rider.

While the loans might give the impression of financial insolvency within the fair and local bus agency, Commissioner Alex Tardif said Thursday that the loans are more a matter of state budget statutes.

"Part of this has to do with Oregon's budget laws," Tardif said. "We can't end the fiscal year in the red. No fund can end negative. We have to, by statute, make sure all our funds are in the black."

For entities like the fair, which incurs expenses all year leading up to the annual event, the revenues don't come in until the gates open in late July, after the fiscal year has closed.

CC Rider also must not show a deficit come July 1, but with an agency primarily funded by grants, that's sometimes difficult, says Tardif.

"Transit is really grant funded," the commissioner noted. "If you're going for a new bus, a new bus alone is something like $130,000, so if you're trying to buy four new buses to replace your aging fleet, you budget assuming you're getting a grant in a certain timeframe, but if it doesn't come through, your budget is wonky."

The county has made similar loans to the transit fund in prior years and, in most cases, CC Rider didn't use the entire amount of the loan. It's unclear exactly what CC Rider's deficit was this year, but the loan amount exceeds the budget gap.

During a prior staff meeting with commissioners, Jennifer Cuellar, the county's finance manager, said the county is working with CC Rider to narrow down a better budgeting process.

"We need to get the operating revenue and operating expenses to find a sustainable basic system, because every year there's something that's odd or not on time that goes up and down," Cuellar told commissioners. "We don't have a model and also the financial [reports] don't facilitate one being able to easily see, on a routine basis, rolling fleet delivering people where they need to go six days a week."

Cuellar also suggested the agency do another evaluation of rider fares to make sure CC Rider is recouping enough costs.

Tardif said the transit loan, just like the fair loan, gets paid back on a standard loan repayment schedule.

Language in a resolution for the general fund transfers indicates all money transfers "shall be budgeted and repaid to the fund from which the money was borrowed by the end of the ensuing year or ensuing budget period."

Tardif said the money used to cover CC Rider is vital to ensuring a smooth-running transit agency.

"It's taking steps to clean up and make a robust transit department that can serve the needs of Columbia County, because without that, we don't have a healthy economy."

Tardif said he hopes to see the county move to a structure that allows commissioners to become more involved in the oversight of county departments, but as of now, commissioners rely on department managers almost entirely.

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