Umatilla County has no plans to spend general fund money on new employees in the 2018-19 fiscal year, but isn’t looking at drastic cuts either.
County commissioners and budget staff met Tuesday morning at the courthouse in Pendleton to get an overview of what to expect in the more than $70 million upcoming budget that goes into effect July 1.
“We’re not in a position to expand,” chief financial officer Robert Pahl said. “We’re not in a position to be extravagant. We need to hold the line.”
Pahl in early December notified department heads not to ask for new hires or to reclassify employees to receive higher pay. Commissioner George Murdock re-emphasized that notion after the meeting as well.
“Our goal is to maintain a stable level of programs and services,” he said. “That’s our whole [operation]. It’s not to offer new programs.”
That’s along the same lines Murdock delivered in a Dec. 4 budget message to departments. He called the approach “right-sizing.” Reorganization has streamlined management, he stated, and the quality of county employees matters more than quantity.
Pahl said the county anticipates a 4 percent increase in revenue this year, which is “more aggressive” than recent years but achievable. Even so, it would mean the county keeps pace with increases in employee, service and equipment costs.
“If our tax revenue goes up 4 percent,” Murdock added, “that doesn’t mean we should have a feeding frenzy.”
The only exceptions to new staff could come in community justice, human services, developmental disabilities, public works and some parts of public heath, all of which rely on grants or other outside funding. That would depend on how much they receive, of course, and Pahl said he would not allow grant programs to creep into the general fund for money.
The county is working on building a cash reserve of $5 million. Pahl said there’s about $4.5 million in that fund now. The county relies on the reserve to keep programs solvent during economic downturns or when state and federal agencies are slow on making payments.
The county plans to keep up its preventative maintenance program. Pahl said that should come to about $200,000, and wind farm revenue is the likely source for the money.
Pahl also said he needs an answer on whether the county would continue giving $400,000 a year to the Oregon State University Extension Service if voters approve a taxing district to fund the service. Murdock said he would have that discussion with the extension service.
The county could save $100,000 if it stops funding the Oregon Water Resources Department. The county struck a deal last year to have the state department absorb county employees, and the county would provide the funds to ensure a watermaster in the Milton-Freewater area.
“That has not happened,” Commissioner Larry Givens stressed, and if the state does not plan to keep its word the county has no reason to give the cash.
Some construction projects remain in the county’s plans. The largest would modify the county jail at a cost of about $1 million so it can handle more inmates. The sheriff’s office has increased inmate capacity from about 160 to more than 200, but the intake area needs security and operations upgrades.
Another $300,000 would continue improvements at the county courthouse, where contractors rebuilt sidewalks this winter. And the county fair also needs storage.
Murdock in his December budget message also mentioned the possibility of creating a taxing district to fund dispatch services, which primarily relies on the general fund and contracts with Pendleton, Hermiston and multiple other cities and districts. That notion, however, may be a year or more away, Murdock stated, and would require the approval of county voters. He contended the passage of a special district would benefit the county and local communities.
The commissioners and budget office meet again Jan. 31 to discuss the draft of the budget. Pahl said the county aims to have the budget in the final stages by March 21. The county’s budget committee holds meetings April 18-20 to review the document. The final steps comes in June, when the board of commissioners hold public hearings and considers its adoption.
The county’s budget picture gets a bit brighter starting in 2019, when major development yield benefits to coffers, including the expansion of Lamb Weston’s french fry making operation in Hermiston and the Wheatridge Wind Energy Project. Murdock and Pahl said the developments deliver a small increase, maybe as much as 5 percent. Pahl said the county still would need to stay frugal.
Contact Phil Wright at email@example.com or 541-966-0833.