By Mike Ahern

Jefferson County Commissioner

This year, Jefferson County celebrates its 100th anniversary and I am pleased to announce that the county enters the year fiscally strong and well prepared to attend to our basic core missions and address our shortcomings.

Probably the best piece of news is that by the end of the fiscal year in June, Jefferson County will be debt free. We have made the final payment on our county jail, meaning lower property taxes countywide, and we will pay off the J Street bond ahead of schedule. This debt was to finance the J Street-City View transportation project and shared with the city of Madras.

We have continued to deal with the effects of the Great Recession, which hit Jefferson County hard starting in 2007. Our property tax collections have been flat for several years. We needed to, and did, change the way we operate in order to control costs in every area. One way we accomplished this was to eliminate some paid positions, replacing them with contracted services.

Another big cost-saving project was to regionalize our 911 service with Wheeler, Sherman and Gilliam counties. Dispatch now operates out of Condon, saving taxpayers about $216,000 last year and avoiding the steep annual cost increases we had been grappling with.

On top of making these necessary changes, we have resisted taking on new obligations and stuck to our core responsibilities: general public safety, roads and the constitutional duties of an Oregon county.

During these difficult times, we have actually made gains in public safety. We have a few more officers, thanks to many third-party contracts. We have made improvements to our jail operations. Jefferson County has excellent Juvenile and Adult Parole and Probation departments, as well as Victims’ Assistance and District Attorney’s offices. The public safety of our county is a system and in Jefferson County the system is working well.

Our roads are another area in which we have made progress. The county’s roads are in better condition now than 10 years ago. We have dedicated most of the federal Secure Rural Schools money to roads and some of the payment in lieu of taxes to roads. The state gas tax was recently increased and about 30 percent of that came back to the counties. We run the public works department as efficiently as possible in order to maximize these resources and over time have improved our road system.

This is a time of great cooperation with our cities, Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Crooked River Ranch and Camp Sherman and neighboring counties. Our sheriff now contracts with Culver and Metolius for enhanced public safety. We work well with the Tribes, especially on public safety and economic development. The Ranch has been a great partner in roads, public safety efforts and code enforcement. We are now working with Crook and Deschutes counties on regional health and education efforts.

This Oregon legislative session, Jefferson County will be working to attain a state grant for about 50 percent of the cost of a new courthouse. Our current courthouse is not safe or functional and we plan to build a courthouse to last well past the next centennial — without asking county residents to pay more taxes. We have a history of saving about $350,000 a year and this is enough to pay a bond for half of the courthouse costs. We need interest rates to stay below 5 percent and the State Legislature to select us for funding. We are hoping to have all the funding secure by spring of 2015.

Even though the national economy has been troubled, Jefferson County has added 585 jobs in the past 10 years. As a reference, Crook County lost 419 jobs in the same period. Our agricultural base, with $70 million in gross sales last year, has been a steady contributor to our economy and job market. Many homegrown, local industries have survived the Great Recession and are growing nicely today. We were able to attract a major new tenant to the Madras Industrial Site with Erickson Aero Air bringing new jobs and opportunity. Currently, they are building a 65,000-square-foot hangar to work on aircraft. This is a major accomplishment.

Jefferson County has challenges. Of the 36 Oregon counties, we score near the bottom on income, health and education measures. We will not make great improvements in our relative ratings in health and education if we don’t raise our county’s income levels. We need to be focused on keeping the jobs we have and attracting new family-wage jobs. Jefferson County, as the major funding source of the local economic development effort, has this as a top priority.

Jefferson County is doing very well.We have a well-run operation with good department heads and elected officials. Without all 133 county employees giving it their all, we would not be in the strong position we are as we enter our next hundred years.

Please join in the celebration of our 100th birthday. We have much history to be proud of. More importantly, we need to look to the future and all work to shape our destiny.

Mike Ahern is the chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners.

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