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Wasco County sees fund decline

Wasco County Board of Commissioners will bring an almost $34 million budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year before a public hearing at its Wednesday, June 11 meeting.

The hearing is set for 9:30 a.m. in room 302 of the Wasco County Courthouse.

Anticipated overall revenues are down 13 percent compared to the 2012-13 fiscal year, and one employee layoff is the result.

General fund revenue is down 10 percent, or almost $1.7 million from the year before, with 2014-15 general fund dollars amounting to about $14.5 million as opposed to the previous $16.2 million.

That said, County Finance Manager Monica Morris said the numbers have remained fairly consistent for several years.

“Many of the differences in this year’s budget can be accounted for by the fact that Public Health operations are no longer showing in our budget,” Morris said.

Within the past year, the Public Health Department became an entity separate from the county. The new North Central Public Health District operates as a “non-taxing district that receives funding through state and federal award contracts as well as payments from the counties” to which they provide services, which currently include Wasco, Sherman and Gilliam.

While Morris reports in this year’s budget message that public health services will remain comparable to what citizens are used to receiving today, the “new structure will complete the transformation” and will naturally precipitate more changes.

“We have learned there are challenges when blazing a path never before taken such as this,” she writes, but “we are working through the challenges with a goal of offering key services to the public in a sustainable manner. Given the uncertainty of state funds due to the Affordable Care Act restructure, [North Central Public Health] realizes they will need to reach out for revenue in areas not previously or traditionally utilized.”

Within the last budget cycle, the county received a share of $1.2 million from Google in enterprise zone initial project fee dollars, part of which was used to spend down moneys funneled into the Special Economic Development Fund, paying off the remaining long-term Columbia Gorge Discovery Center debt.

“The health and enterprise zone changes are the two largest impacts you’ll see in this year’s budget,” Morris said. “No new funds will be coming in next year from the zone fee, as that depends on when [the new Google facility] is completely up and running.”

The second enterprise zone agreement is not reflected in the coming year’s budget.

“Design LLC is not required to make a payment until operational,” the budget message states. “Once operational, there will be an annual fee of $800,000 and that fee will be distributed with 35 percent to City of The Dalles, 35 percent to Wasco County and 30 percent to Northern Wasco County School District 21.”

However, the county might not actually begin to see these payments until the 2015-16 budget cycle.

In the currently proposed budget, however, the “allocation of the original enterprise zone payment ($250,000) continues to evolve. The budget of these funds remain similar to the current distribution in that the Columbia Gorge Community College Information Technology Program will receive $75,000 and the balance is split between the City of The Dalles and Wasco County.”

However, what is different this year is the city and county may choose to not appropriate these funds during a joint meeting, but instead can discuss how to distribute their shares within their respective boards.

The 2014-15 county budget appropriates these dollars to the Mid-Columbia Economic Development District and the Planning Department.

Anticipated overall revenue in all other departments is 2 percent less than what it was last year due at least in part, Morris suggested, to the fact that federal grants seem harder and harder to obtain.

“I have noticed that federal grants are not as available,” Morris observed, while state funds are available, but often only “at a reduced amount.”

What is available, Morris said, are one-time state dollars offered only for specific purposes.

The county has taken advantage of several of these types of one-time funds, including the $10,000 Veteran’s Outreach Grant, the $7,230 Oregon Department of Justice Child Support and $7,241 Child Abuse Assistance increase.

However, Morris followed, “this type of revenue is more restrictive” and can be very “difficult to count on” from year to year.

The Secure Rural Schools funding that in previous years served as the county road department’s safety net has all but gone away and, based on a federal notice Morris recently received, she said the chances of it actually coming back look “very slim.”

“The rescue funds are depleted,” she said, “And this leads me to believe there will not be a rescue payment of any sort next year — hence the need for funding.”

Other important updates to the budget include an increase in the sheriff’s department reflecting the addition of a full-time benefited deputy.

The increase, the budget message states, “is the result of a multiyear agreement with Oregon State Parks, with the intent that most of the Deschutes River will be patrolled” and the work fully paid for by an intergovernmental agreement.

Morris reports that until this year, the county had not really needed to “trim services.” However, the 2014-15 proposed budget necessitated about a $100,000 decrease to the Weed and Pest Fund in the reduction of a full-time benefited position as a result of declining funding.

“Our management team does an outstanding job with the resources they have available to them,” Morris said. “Our operating revenue county-wide has been flat for the last three years, and what that means to me number-wise is that our department heads are providing the same level of service while remaining very frugal with our funds.”

The top five outside revenue sources for Wasco County operations are property tax, motor vehicle funds, Community Corrections state grant, 911 phone tax and the solid waste host fee.

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