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Officials discuss tourism layoffs, deferred compensation increases for elected officials

As the global outbreak of COVID-19 continues to strain the national and state economies, Clackamas County is beginning to come to terms with the pandemic's effects on its own budget and services it delivers locally.

One of the biggest impacts so far is the county was forced to lay off 11 employees from its Tourism & Cultural Affairs department, Mt. Hood Territory. The temporary layoffs were caused by a 75 percent budget cut due to revenue from the county's transient lodging tax drying up.

County Administrator Gary Schmidt told the Board of County Commissioners during a Budget Committee meeting Wednesday that the tourism department will be reorganized, and hopefully many of those laid off will be brought back once the state economy opens back up in order to advance local tourism again.

"This is a (decision) we didn't have any choice but to make," Schmidt said. "There was a complete loss in revenue, and there is no indication of when it will grow back again... It's very sad for these competent high-performing employees, who through no fault of their own, they're no longer able to work for the county."

Two employees will continue within the tourism department including Executive Director Samara Phelps, who is taking on the challenge of figuring out how Mt. Hood Territory will operate to help stimulate the local tourism economy once the state eases social distancing measures and begins to reopen.

According to Phelps, those discussions are in the preliminary stages, and her department's foremost goal is to assist local tourism businesses in accessing relief provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act including loans provided by the U.S. Small Business Administration and payroll protection, as well as exploring other grant opportunities provided by the state and federal government.

Schmidt also informed commissioners that many of the county's seasonal and part-time workers within the Business and Community Services Department have been notified there will be no work for them in the foreseeable future as all parks and other county recreation facilities remain closed under statewide stay-at-home and social distancing measures.

Elizabeth Comfort, the county's interim director of finance, told the Budget Committee that her department is tracking all county expenditures related to the outbreak of novel coronavirus in order to identify which of those the county can seek grants for that would reimburse the expenses.

"It's imperative that we're tracking, diligently and timely, our expenses so we can apply for all of those available to us," Comfort said.

Commissioners also heard Wednesday recommendations from the county's Compensation Board which reviews all salary increases for elected officials. The board has recommended several increases including a 2.6% bump for commissioners, 6.2% for the assessor, 5.2% for the clerk, 4.8% for the district attorney, 9.7% for the justice of the peace and 2.7% for the treasurer.

The recommended increases — identified by the Compensation Board by looking at similar positions across the state and adjusting for market average — represent a $52,500 annual increase in compensation but just 0.017% of the county's total personal services budget which exceeds $308.5 million for the current fiscal year.

County Chair Jim Bernard told members of the Budget Committee that he's spoken with all the elected officials who would be affected by compensation increases and they have all decided not to accept pay increases while the coronavirus pandemic continues. The committee decided they would take up the issue again in six months, or whenever the pandemic begins to unwind and the local economy stabilizes.

The county's biennial budget will be up for further discussion and final adoption in May ahead of the official deadline in July.


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