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Columbia County budget for 2019-2020 was approved by budget committee with no changes

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - County Commissioners Alex Tardif, Margaret Magruder and Henry Heimuller at a board meeting in April 2019. The three commissioners will vote on the proposed budget in June, following public hearings.Columbia County's budget for 2019-2020 will soon go to the board of commissioners for approval.

The county's budget committee approved the budget as presented by Debbie Smith-Wagar, the county's interim finance director, earlier this month. On June 26, the three county commissioners will vote on whether to approve the budget.

The commissioners can make "minor adjustments to it, but no major changes," according to Smith-Wagar.

At a department heads meeting earlier this month, Commissioner Henry Heimuller said the proposed budget was the first time in a long time that the finance director was not calling for many cuts.

Smith-Wagar said the proposed budget will work for now, but isn't sustainable.

"This budget will get you through next year," she said. "But you will need to make some decisions."

She added, "Every budget, there's unknowns. But for Columbia County, right now, you have a lot of unknowns."

For 2019-2020, the $50 million budget projects expenses will exceed revenues by more than $3 million. Rollover funds from the current fiscal year will help balance the budget, and contingency funds could be used as needed.

Throughout the departments, administrative allocations increased by a significantly higher percentage than other expenses. The administrative allocation is a charge made to departments to fund support services at the county, such as human resources and facilities maintenance.

Compared to other years — and expectations for future budgets — the proposed budget includes relatively few changes, including:

? The county's Veteran Service Office will see a significant reduction in funding. The office functions to connect veterans with services and reduce homelessness and suicide among veterans. Nearly all of the office's funding, $136,895 proposed for next fiscal year, goes toward a contract with Community Action Team. Veterans Service Office expenses are expected to come in over budget for the current fiscal year. For fiscal year 2019-20, a 14.8% decrease in department funding is anticipated.

? The budget includes $50,000 toward a youth drop-in center. Commissioner Alex Tardif proposed the funding and has been involved in its development efforts with other stakeholders to improve mental health resources. If the budget is approved, Tardif will still need the other commissioners' authorization to use the funds. Tardif says he plans to begin that process as soon as the budget takes effect.

? The District Attorney's Office won't receive more funding from a Justice Reinvestment program, meaning the office faces a $145,200 decrease in revenue. The department will still see an increase in expenses, primarily due to a larger sum going toward county administration. District Attorney Jeff Auxier requested funding to hire an additional staff member, but the proposed budget does not include that funding. The hire was intended to assist with updating the office's data collection processes and speeding up cases. According to the budget, Columbia County Circuit Court is "slower than it should be" when it comes to resolving cases. Other than the DA position, which is state funded, all other positions in the office are county-funded.

? The proposed budget for juvenile services accounts for an additional juvenile probation officer.

? The Elections Office, supervised by the county clerk, will have a 22% increase in budgeted expenses next fiscal year. An increase in the budgeted expenditures for materials and services contributes to one of the office's goals for the year: launching a new website.

? Public health will receive funding to hire two new environmental services specialists, following the beginning of a restructuring of how the local public health authority contracts with providers, like Columbia Health Services.

? The two largest funding sources for the Columbia County Jail are property taxes and boarding of federal prisoners. In the current budget, the county had predicted $1.8 million in revenue from boarding federal prisoners. But the jail recently negotiated a new contract and now earns more per inmate. For fiscal year 2020, the proposed budget includes $2.45 million from boarding federal prisoners, nearly a 27 percent increase.

The Columbia County Board of Commissioners will host two public hearings for testimony on the proposed budget. The first will be held at the Columbia County Courthouse, 230 Strand St., St. Helens, at 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 12. The second will be at the Rainier Transit Center, 299 Columbia River Highway, at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 13.

The full proposed budget and budgets from previous years are available on the county website.