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Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts in public disagreement with commissioners over state of county budget

Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts is currently engaged in something of a public dispute with County Commissioner Chair Jim Bernard and Commissioner Ken Humberston over the state of the county budget.

A budget crisis?

Clackamas County recently announced that because expenditures are outpacing funding streams, the county is on an unsustainable path and is seeking to "rightsize" the budget.

COURTESY PHOTO: CCSO - Craig RobertsIn response, Sheriff Craig Roberts sent a letter to County Chair Jim Bernard on Feb. 6 and publicly released an op-ed Feb. 7 calling the situation a "financial crisis" and suggesting mismanagement of the budget.

Roberts says in the op-ed that the county's finance department "cannot credibly explain how we got here."

He goes on to request an independent forensic financial analysis of the county's financial management practices.

"We need to know why and how the County General Fund is reportedly facing an estimated $8 million to $12 million deficit, in a time of unprecedented County growth," Roberts says in his op-ed.

He also reveals that county departments, including the Sheriff's Office, have been asked to prepare budget-cut scenarios of 5, 10, and 15 percent of the county's general fund support.

Since then, Roberts, Bernard and Commissioner Ken Humberston have gone back and forth publicly—with both Bernard and Humberston responding to Roberts's op-ed in letters and then Roberts countering Bernard in a press release.

In their letters, both Bernard and Humberston maintain that the county's general fund is not in a state of crisis and that there is no mismanagement of funds. They both say the 2019-20 budget is balanced as state law requires.

In the county's rightsizing announcement to residents and stakeholders, it is noted that county officials managed to balance the budget by drawing down one-time reserves that cannot be used again.

COURTESY PHOTO: CLACKAMAS COUNTY - Ken Humberston.Bernard and Humberston suggest the county's rightsizing movement has arisen not from crisis but from the realization that expenses are outpacing revenues.

"Looking forward, we are concerned that revenues are rising [at] a slower rate than the demand for services so we are taking a proactive stance to 'right size' the budget NOW instead of waiting for it to BE a crisis," Humberston wrote. "I call it a belt tightening."

The courthouse project

But Roberts, in his op-ed, expresses concern that the cuts come at a time when the county is looking to fund the building of a new courthouse. Citing correspondence with Bernard, Roberts suggests the county will draw from general fund dollars if voters turn down a bond to help finance the project.

"In other words: The Commissioners support building a courthouse at the cost of county jobs and much-needed services," Roberts says.

COURTESY PHOTO: CLACKAMAS COUNTY - Jim BernardBernard addresses this concern in his letter, saying, "The current county budget challenges are not related to the courthouse project."

Roberts answers back, referring to a statement Commissioner Sonya Fischer made at the Feb. 13, 2019 State of the County address to support his claim that the courthouse project is absolutely related to what he calls a budget crisis.

Roberts says Fischer was quoting from a board statement that reads, "If the voters are unwilling to fund the courthouse, the county may have to make significant cuts to current programs and services in order to fund the courthouse. We will do that if we need to. Clackamas County is committed to funding and building a new courthouse."

Both Bernard and Humberston point out though that the State of Oregon will pay "half the costs" of new courthouse construction, amounting to $96 million, and that it would be unwise to turn down those monies.

"So when an opportunity to save money occurs for a much needed project, you shift your priorities and take advantage of it," Humberston says in his letter.

Of course, Roberts counters this point as well, saying construction costs have "ballooned" to $230 million, so the state's contribution would only cover about 40 percent of costs at this point.

Regardless of dollar figures, Humberston, in his letter, defends prioritizing the courthouse project. He points out that the courthouse was built in about 1936, and claims it is too small and unsafe in several ways.

"Occasionally it has had to be evacuated because of poor air quality, is only 3 feet from falling into the river and cannot be 'remodeled' into a better court," Humberston says in his response to Roberts' op-ed.

He adds, "It is also unsafe for people using the courts as accused and victims often find themselves face to face in the corridors awaiting trial—imagine how intimidating that is to crime victims and victims of spousal abuse."

Fighting words

Bernard ends his letter by addressing Roberts directly.

"Sheriff, your public undermining of county employees and leadership is unfortunate," Bernard says.

Roberts disagrees.

"First and foremost, being concerned about preserving county employee jobs and services is the opposite of 'undermining.' It is my duty as Sheriff to make sure the public is aware of any potential negative impacts to public safety," Roberts says in his Feb. 8 press release. "Second, asking reasonable questions about the responsible handling of public dollars is anything but 'unfortunate.' What is unfortunate is turning my asking of those questions into some sort of failure of a Board of County Commissioners loyalty test."

Bernard and Humberston both note 50 percent of the county's general fund goes to the Sheriff's Office, and in his letter, Humberston goes so far as to point the financial-mismanagement finger back at Roberts.

"While we all agree that we would like more deputies on the street, [Roberts's] executive team and civilian staff are pretty well filled and I have it on good authority that the problem is the allocation of the resources we give him and not necessarily the amount."

He adds, "Oh, btw, we increased the sheriffs budget by $5.5 million last year, keeping a commitment we made to him 2 years ago. How soon he forgets!"

Roberts has not answered Humberston's letter publicly, but he did reply to Bernard's mention of steady annual increases to the Sheriff's Office.

"This is disingenuous," Roberts says. "The Commissioners are well aware those increases have not kept pace with county growth and demand for services, as detailed in my previous letter."

Kristen Wohlers
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