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Committee approves $892 million, a 2.2% reduction, but COVID-19 expected to cause additional shortfall

Members of Clackamas County's budget committee spent four days last week beginning Tuesday, May 26, hearing presentations from department heads and discussing the breakdown of the $892 million budget proposed for fiscal year 2020-21.

The upcoming budget represents a 2.2% reduction from the previous year, but is likely to see more cuts. County officials await word from the Oregon Legislature and Gov. Kate Brown as to how state resources have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In his message to the committee, County Administrator Gary Schmidt said that it's important to note the county expects additional reductions as they learn more about cutbacks at the state and federal levels.

"In the meantime," Schmidt wrote, "We are proposing general fund reductions in the amount of $6.1 million across 12 departments and elected offices to address what we know today."

On Friday, May 29, the 10-member committee — which includes the five county commissioners and five citizen members — gave preliminary approval to each of its 21 departmental budgets. The committee also gave feedback on where potential cuts proposed by department heads could be changed to preserve certain services deemed essential to the county's mission.

For example, county commissioners directed Sheriff Craig Roberts to relocate $2 million in cuts to the Sheriff's Office's $100 million budget to preserve 16 mental health jail beds that were originally on the chopping block. Housing, Health and Human Services was also asked to relocate some cuts that were originally proposed to county veteran's housing.

Overall, the county expects to leave the equivalent of 18 full-time positions unfilled in the upcoming fiscal year.

County Board Chair Jim Bernard said despite suggesting some tough cuts and expectation of further reductions due to COVID-19, he believes that generally the county is in good shape with a triple-A bond rating, as well as $15 million in contingency and reserves.

"I'm proud of the work we're doing and look forward to making the adjustments as we find out more about the direction of the economy," he said. "We can be in a lot better shape if we can predict the future a little bit better."

According to Bernard, Clackamas County has a systemic issue with expenses vastly outpacing its own revenue. The county's total budgetary responsibility for all programs and services is currently more than $1.2 billion.

"We're going to have to make adjustments — or somebody is, since I'm not going to be there — over the next few years to bring the budget into structural stability," Bernard said.

Several budget committee members including Bernard and Commissioner Martha Schrader were particularly vocal about concerns over the Sheriff's Office budget, and asked Roberts to take another hard look at cuts before the board gives final approval.

According to the presented budget, the Sheriff's Office is being asked to mitigate the loss of $2 million in support from the county's general fund while incurring a $1.9 million increase in personnel expenses over the last year. Making it even tougher, it has to be done with existing revenue and competing demands within the Sheriff's Office for the resources.

While the commissioners and other budget members are obligated to make recommendations and give guidance on where to make potential cuts, the sheriff, by statute, is actually not obligated to listen to those recommendations, according to Bernard.

"We give him the money, he spends it as he thinks is best," Bernard said. "We just expressed that we wish he would reevaluate it."

According to state law, Clackamas County must finalize its budget by June 30. County commissioners are expected to meet virtually on Thursday, June 18 at 10 a.m. to give final approval to the budget before it takes effect July 1. The budget committee voted to begin holding monthly meetings to hear about budgetary concerns and give guidance.

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