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Despite large budget with federal grant money, staffing cuts are coming for some departments

PMG FILE PHOTO - The county's renovation of the former John Gumm school is part of the 2021-22 budget.The Columbia County government is set to approve what would be by far its largest-ever budget next week.

County commissioners are poised to approve a nearly $90 million budget for the next fiscal year. That would be the largest in recent county history by more than $10 million.

Despite the hefty budget, the county is poised to eliminate a net four positions, out of almost 207 full-time equivalent slots in county government.

Columbia County recently finalized new union contracts, resulting in a 1.5% pay increase for employees. A 2020 pay study ordered by the county found that on average, non-management employees — most represented by AFSCME — were paid more than they would be paid for similar positions with comparable public employers. The salary schedules for department directors and other managerial positions were, on average, far lower than for similar positions with other employers.

The county gave an additional 1.5% raise to the employees whose compensation was below market rate.

Bolstering its financial resources, Columbia County is set to receive $10 million through the American Rescue Plan. Just under one-third of that federal money is budgeted for salaries and benefits. Equipment purchases are budgeted for $4 million, and $2 million will be distributed as donations to local organizations.

Columbia County Sheriff Brian Pixley has been pushing for increased funding in recent months.

The proposed budget for the sheriff's enforcement division adds an additional employee. Budget documents show jail staffing will decrease by three full-time employees, but Pixley said the jail isn't losing any positions. As of June 24, the county's finance department had not responded to questions about the discrepancy between the official documents and the sheriff's statements.

The jail has 258 beds, but it doesn't have the staff required to operate with high occupancy numbers. When the pandemic hit, courts were directed to limit jail occupancy to slow the spread of COVID-19. As of mid-June 2021, the jail had 139 inmates in custody.

Aside from property taxes, the jail's largest source of revenue is fees paid by the federal government for boarding federal inmates. But those numbers have also dropped since the pandemic began.

The county expected to receive $2.25 million for boarding federal inmates this year, but Pixley estimated the actual number will be $1.76 million. For the coming fiscal year, the county is expecting $2 million.

Federal bed rentals "are slowly climbing back up but we are still controlling the influx of inmates into the Columbia County Jail to ensure our facility remains COVID free," Pixley said.  

The Columbia County Sheriff's Office has also seen a dramatic rise in its liability and property insurance premiums. The cost for insurance just for the jail is budgeted at $435,000 for next year, up 48% from the current year.

Pixley is in negotiations with the Vernonia city government and the Port of Columbia County to add funding for additional deputies. If the agreements work out, Vernonia and the port could fund a few new deputy positions.

The District Attorney's Office will lose one of two positions enforcing child support, but it is gaining essentially half a position for a victim advocate.

Columbia County's adult parole and probation department will lose three employees, bringing the total down to roughly 19 positions. The department saw high levels of turnover under the previous director, Janet Evans, who retired last summer. The county hired a new director earlier this year.

The emergency management department has just two staff positions, though the director position was vacant for approximately eight months during the pandemic. Through a Homeland Security and Emergency Management program, the emergency management program had funding for part-time employees equal to just under two full-time staff members, but that's going down to just 0.7 full-time equivalent in the next fiscal year.

Land development services will also lose equal to just under two full-time positions.

The county's transit agency, Columbia County Rider, is anticipating revenue from rider fares will be just a third of the 2019-20 total.

County commissioners recently gave CC Rider tentative approval to reduce fares and cut service on most of the bus lines, opting to focus instead on Dial-a-Ride door-to-door service.

The department doesn't plan to cut any county staff positions next year, but only has three to start with. Bus drivers are employed by MTR Western, a company contracted by CC Rider.

Next year, CC Rider is cutting the budget for contract service and fuel down nearly 40% from the 2019-20 cost.

The fairgrounds are managed by the volunteer fair board. The board, which saw almost complete turnover just before the pandemic hit, has yet to host a county fair, but has hosted concerts, dinners, and emergency response operations when wildfires hit other parts of the state last summer.

Laken Gortler, the fair board treasurer, said that the fair board is aiming to host more events outside of the annual county fair. The budget includes $65,000 in revenue for next year from concert fees.

But along with more revenue, the board anticipates the budget for hosting events and renting equipment will more than double.

The fair board is also increasing the budget for repairs, maintenance, and building improvements.

"A bunch of the buildings are just in disrepair," Gortler said.

The roof over the main office needs to be replaced and the other buildings are wearing down, Gortler explained.

Updated June 23.

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