HOOD RIVER COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — Matt English has worked for the Hood River County Sheriff’s Office for almost two decades, and has led it for about seven years. But these days, he oversees a rapidly shrinking pool of deputies.
“Right now we’re at the same level of staffing that we had in 1990,” English said, adding that the local population has grown 50% since that time.
Driving the shortage: The county’s ongoing budget troubles.
County Commissioner Karen Joplin said the problems started in the early 2000s, with decreasing timber revenues and increased costs in PERS (about $1.1 million in 2018-2019), leading the county to start drawing from its reserves. Now, the county has resolved to balance the budget without any draw from the reserves starting in 2021, Joplin said.
“What we’re looking at in the next fiscal year is significant reductions and potential department closures,” she said.
That instability is prompting many deputies to leave for other departments, English said.
“I can’t replace the positions at this point because there’s no guarantee that they’ll have a job in June of 2020,” he said.
“The belt, it can’t get any tighter”
The sheriff’s office has numerous mandates it is not allowed to cut back on, including court security and jail transport, search and rescue, and contracts with Cascade Locks, the Oregon State Marine Board, and a school resource deputy.
In July, the county lost the staffing levels required for 24-hour patrol coverage. In October, according to English, that was further reduced to 12 hours. If there’s a life-threatening emergency, on-call deputies will have to respond from their homes. The sheriff’s office also stopped participating in the regional drug task force due to the departure of the assigned detective.
English said these decisions have been some of the most difficult of his career.
“The belt, it can’t get any tighter at this point,” he said.
Other departments are suffering too. Public works make not be able to plow as many roads this winter. The county has sold or shut down parks over the last several years. Joplin worries the health department is at risk of being handed over to the state to manage.
“What we’re looking at in the next fiscal year is significant reductions and potential department closures.
English and Joplin both point to the county’s relatively low permanent tax rate as a main contributor to the budget shortfalls.
Last year, the total property tax imposed on residents was $13.53 per $1,000 of assessed value. However, the county only gets $1.31 back. According to an economist with the Oregon Department of Revenue, that’s the fifth lowest rate in the state. The rest of the money gets distributed to other entities like cities, schools, parks, fire and library districts. Contrast that with neighboring Wasco County which keeps $4.01 per $1,000 of assessed value.
Under Oregon law, a property’s maximum assessed value cannot increase by more than 3% each year. Joplin describes it as a “challenging system” that is “due for reforms.”
“Hood River is unique in the way that our property values have really rocketed in the last 10 years and our inability to collect revenues from that increase is hindering our abilities to provide and sustain services,” she said.
Since it would take statewide action to remove the 3% cap, Joplin said the county’s only other option is to try to pass local levies or sales taxes. This year they sent two measures to voters. The first, a five-year operational levy at $0.89 per $1,000. It failed by a “fairly slim margin.”
The other, a 5% prepared food and beverage tax, failed by a “much more significant margin,” according to Joplin. She said the county learned from the process and is working on a new ballot measure for May. The budget has to be finalized in June.
“We’ll have significant closures if we can’t convince our community to pass something,” she said.
In the meantime, English said his department remains committed to public safety.
“We will continue to provide the best service that we’re absolutely able to,” he said. “These decisions have been absolutely gut wrenching.”
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