Sheriff stands behind decision to speak up about county budget
A public feud broke out last week after Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts released an op-ed saying the county's general fund is in a state of crisis and calling for an independent forensic financial analysis of the county's financial management practices.
County Chair Jim Bernard and Commissioner Ken Humberston both snapped back, claiming there's no crisis or mismanagement, but that the county's expenses are outpacing revenues, prompting a proactive "rightsizing the budget" effort.
County Administrator Gary Schmidt too refuses to call the budget situation a crisis, saying the county is simply developing a sustainable budget to live within its means.
"We have years of clean audits and our county has been designated with a AAA bond rating," Schmidt said. "We are acting as responsible stewards of our public funds in ensuring that our budgets are sustainable and right-sized so we can effectively serve our residents and the public."
Even after the uproar, Roberts stands behind his decision to speak up.
"Unfortunately, it had to get to this point," Roberts said. "I can tell you that I have received countless phone calls and emails from county employees that are saying, 'Thank you so much for standing up and saying what other people have been afraid to say.'"
He added, "While this has been difficult, I still believe it was the right direction."
At the crux of the issue for Roberts is the question of how the county got into its current financial position while the economy is doing well.
"It has been made clear that we're moving forward, but we're not to really ask how we got here," Roberts said. "I have been pushing that question: how did we get here? I am not clear today whatsoever as to how we got here."
Bernard, Humberston and Schmidt have pointed out that this year's budget is balanced. However, it was balanced thanks to the use of one-time reserves, according to the county's public rightsizing announcement.
The reason for the county's unsustainable budget, according to Schmidt, is that property tax revenues are not keeping pace with the demand for services.
"Our expenses are increasing and are outpacing revenues," Schmidt said. "These include employee salaries, Public Employees Retirement System increases, unfunded mandates and higher costs of doing business and providing needed services."
The county has asked Roberts and other departments to prepare budget cut scenarios of 5, 10 and 15 percent.
"From my position, each and every one of those [scenarios] is absolutely shocking what the impact could be, and I would call it a crisis," Roberts said.
He said a 10 percent cut would equate to about $6.6 million for the sheriff's office and would mean cutting 45 positions and closing 186 jail beds.
Roberts has pointed out that these potential cuts come as the county is planning to build a new courthouse. Roberts is not opposed to a new courthouse, he said, or other new buildings like a new jail and a new juvenile department, but he questions the financial path to achieve it.
Schmidt maintains that the "budget challenges" have nothing to do with the courthouse, but he said the county is in "dire need" of a new courthouse and calls the state's potential contribution of $95 million toward the $230 million project a "tremendous opportunity."
In his response to the sheriff's op-ed, Humberston pointed the proverbial finger back at Roberts, questioning Roberts's allocation of county funds. According to Roberts, the sheriff's office financial books are open to anyone who wishes to take a look, and he maintains the office is using resources as efficiently as possible.
In the end, Roberts said he is optimistic about moving forward collaboratively.
"I always believe that we can come together to solve these issues…I look forward to that," Roberts said. "I work hard to be a team player, and I so much believe in our philosophy of working together to make a difference. I have amazing partnerships with city, county, federal entities. While this has been difficult, I felt like I work for the citizens of this county and they are my top priority above everybody else. If I have to ask a difficult question, I'm honestly doing it on behalf of them, and I will always do what's best in the interest of public safety because that is what I got elected to do."
Roberts continues to seek an analysis of the county's financial practices and wishes it to be a transparent public process with citizen involvement.
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