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Commissioners acknowledge need for restructuring as major expenses, economic downturn loom.

The Clackamas County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 to adopt the county's $892 million budget and several other special district budgets in a four-hour marathon meeting Thursday, June 18. FILE PHOTO - The Clackamas County Board of Commissioners.

The budgets were discussed and approved by the budget committee, which includes the commissioners, in a week's worth of meetings with department heads that took place the last week of may. Adoption of the budget marks the end of the county budget process for the fiscal year 2020-2021, but anticipated state and federal revenue shortfalls due to the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn prompted the budget committee to agree to meet monthly. The budget adopted Thursday will serve as a placeholder while the budget committee awaits more information from state and federal partners.

The $892,167,337 budget includes appropriations to more than two dozen departments and special districts such as public health, the housing authority, economic development, disaster management, the sheriff's office, enhanced law enforcement district, the North Clackamas Parks & Recreation District, Water Environment Services, Oregon State University Extension and many others. For most departments, general fund allocations make up a majority of their budget.

The lone no vote in adopting the county's placeholder budget was Commissioner Paul Savas.

Savas expressed concern that while the county's budget is "technically" and "legally" balanced, it's unsustainable — a point he's tried to make in previous years.

"We don't have a structurally balanced budget, and I don't see a path or strategy towards a year in which we will," Savas said. "I think it's a core responsibility to get there as soon as possible."

According to Savas, his concern is that the county is facing a number of large expenses in the future with no foreseeable way to pay for them. For example, the county is on the verge of embarking on a $230 million rebuild of its courthouse in the coming years.

Savas' comments echo that of County Board Chair Jim Bernard's, who said back in May that changes would be required in order to bring structural stability to the county's budget over the next few years. He acknowledged those changes will have to be made without his leadership after losing reelection to incoming County Board Chair Tootie Smith in the May primary.

Commissioner Ken Humberston said he doesn't share quite as skeptical a view of the county's budget as some of his colleagues.

"I believe our new Finance Director (Elizabeth Comfort) is working to get us on that path," he said. "I think we all share the same objective: a sustainable budget going forward as quickly as possible."

Humberston commended the work of Comfort, County Administrator Gary Schmidt and staff for their commitment to continue helping the budget committee and board of commissioners make adjustments over the next six months as the impact of COVID-19 is fully realized.

"I believe we will get exactly where we want to go in a reasonable period of time," Humberston said. "We just need to give them the opportunity to work on this and us the opportunity to work on this. I tend to look forward to 'How do we solve the problem?' And I think we are on the right path to solve it."

Highlights from the budget FY 2020-21:

— The county's total budget of $892,167,337 is a 2.2% reduction ($20 million) over the previous fiscal year ($912,592,458).

— The county's general fund for FY 20-21 is $135,88,467.

— The county comes into the new fiscal year with a $200 million beginning balance, a 13% reduction over the previous year.

— Due to the significant decline of lodging tax receipts, the county tourism department has been reduced to two employees from 13.

— Countywide, tax revenue is expected to increase by 2.0% or $3.0 million. However, property tax revenue for FY 2020-21 is an increase of 1.7%, anticipating increased delinquencies due to the COVID-related impacts. Delinquencies will not be fully known until this fall when tax collections begin and the financial consequences caused by the breadth and duration of the pandemic are more fully understood.

— The largest departmental budget within the county is transportation and development division at $167,421,486, 22% increase over the previous fiscal year.

— Health, Housing and Human Services is the second largest department budget at $154,130,065, a 5% decrease.

— The third largest budget in the county budget is to the Sheriff's Office at $101,256,500 — a 1.9% increase over the previous years. Commissioners asked the sheriff 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.

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