Riding out the storm

Jackson County's budget for the 2013-2014 fiscal year will be leaner than expected after the Budget Committee decided to make more cuts than County Administrator Danny Jordan had recommended. A creative proposal by Commissioner Don Skundrick to assess a surcharge on every household in the county could prevent those cuts, and one more year of timber subsidy from the federal government is an outside possibility, but neither is certain.

In the meantime, county residents should get used to even less from their county government than its present scaled-down level.

The county's fiscal situation is the result of several factors, not all of them tied to the loss of federal timber payments.

The recession hit the county hard as interest rates on investments dropped. The property tax base, which had been increasing about 5 percent per year, stopped growing at all as property values fell. Various state funding to the county declined as the state grappled with its own funding issues. The housing bust also took a toll on income from fees such as those for recording property transfers. And increases in payments to the Public Employees Retirement System took a toll as well.

The reserve fund the county has built up over a number of years does leave it in better shape than other timber counties in the state, but those reserves will not last forever. The Budget Committee decided to stretch them farther by drawing less for this budget, which meant deeper cuts.

Among those county-funded agencies affected by the committee's action were libraries, the county Extension Service, grants for 4-H, human services, public health and veterans services.

The library system was told it would be funded for the next year, but if an alternative revenue source is not found, all libraries would close the following year except the Medford central library, which also could shut down.

The Sheriff's Office and the District Attorney's Office are seeing staff reductions, as are several other county departments. Salaries have been frozen for managers and elected officials.

These are painful cuts. The pain will only continue, and will get worse in the next few years as the reserves run out unless new funding is found.

This is not about the county failing to live within its means. Its means are not sufficient to sustain even this stripped-down level of service to the community. Only the reserves are preventing even more severe cuts and, ultimately, a state takeover to prevent the complete collapse of county government.

In the end, county residents will get what they are willing to pay for.

Skundrick's proposed surcharge has the potential to keep the county functioning at an acceptable level. The details and the proposed monthly fee amount haven't been worked out, but it could mean the difference between maintaining a basic level of government and losing services that are valuable to many people, such as libraries, Extension Service programs and 4-H.

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