PENDLETON — The Umatilla County Board of Commissioners adopted the county’s budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year at a Wednesday, June 2, meeting.

The board unanimously approved the budget of nearly $123.7 million, with more than $117 million appropriated. That’s $21 million more than last year’s budget, a significant increase, with two drivers — the federal American Rescue Plan Act and growing property taxes, according to county officials.

General funds amounted to nearly $36.5 million, nearly $2 million more than last year, a modest increase, county Chief Financial Officer Robert Pahl said.

“We’re not flushed, but we’re pleased with the fact that we have a balanced budget and we’re not having to make cuts,” Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock said.

Murdock added he was surprised the county has not had to make cuts in this year’s budget.

“If you’d asked me a year ago, in March, I had no idea what the impact would be” from the pandemic, he said. “It looked pretty bleak. But I think on a whole lot of fronts, people have been surprised. The economy has not died. People paid their property taxes. There’s been a lot of pleasant surprises.”

County budget, stimulus funds

Umatilla County Public Health saw its total allocated funds increase from $5 million to about $5.8 million. The increase comes from state funding for staffing and supplies, including personal protective equipment and tents for vaccine clinics, according to county officials.

Murdock said he wants it to be clear “there is no money in the regular county budget tied to hiring more personnel” or buying extra equipment because it’s one-time funding.

“This money makes the budget higher because we have to account for the money in the budget, but it’s not money being used to hire more people,” he said.

The sheriff’s office also saw its funds increase, from $16 million last year to $17.4 million. Most of that funding comes from the state’s 911 funds and allows the sheriff’s office to add staff to dispatch and the county jail, officials say.

In addition, the county will hire a county planner after abandoning the idea last year because of financial uncertainty from the pandemic. There also are provisions in the budget to proactively maintain heating, venting and air conditioning systems, boilers and windows in buildings.

The commissioners also approved the first half of federal stimulus funding in the June 2 meeting, with $2 million going toward a pipeline project in the west part of the county to deliver water from the Columbia River to support agriculture, preserve critical groundwater areas, recharge the aquifer and create jobs, Murdock said.

Another $2 million in federal stimulus will go toward the county’s public works department, which saw revenue fall during the pandemic due to reduced travel, all while still responding to damage from the 2021 flooding of the Umatilla River.

The commissioners approved $650,000 in joint investments with local communities to support ongoing partnerships and help restore economies in areas that have limited resources. Murdock added, “In some cases, one or more of these communities will not receive any (federal funds) such as we do.”

The budget’s intent

Murdock previously has noted three specific areas the commissioners wanted to address in this year’s budget: mental health, equity and flooding. Now that focus has shifted more specifically to mental health and equity, with contingency funds in the budget to set aside to address these issues.

Those funds include $200,000 set aside for the possibility of a new program called CAHOOTS — Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets — where medics and mental health professionals assist or replace law enforcement in response to calls involving mental illness, homelessness and addiction.

Murdock said it’s unclear exactly when or how the program will come to fruition in the county, but the county has set aside funds in the budget “to significantly modify how we address mental health and other programs within the community.”

Murdock said what happens in the 2021 legislative session also will determine how the county continues to address equity issues, such as the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Hispanic residents.

“There are pieces of the puzzle that have to come together before we can frame the final plan,” Murdock said.

In other action, the board approved the purchase of several items. They include a nearly $72,500 water truck, a $15,000 asphalt paving machine, a water truck for the Meacham Fire Department, and approximately $7,300 worth of body armor for the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office. In addition, the commissioners approved a request from the health department to hire an environmental health specialist and to begin a new COVID-19 vaccine incentive program.

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Reporter primarily covering government and public safety in Umatilla and Morrow County.

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