The Missing “Financial Contingency Plan”
By David Jennings – Published By The Sentinel 3-2-16
Last year the Coos County Board of Commissioners (BOC) told us the County would likely face a $2 Million budget deficit in fiscal year (FY 2016-2017). Now they tell us this deficit will probably be closer to $2.5 million.
At a February work session BOC chair John Sweet said he has asked the County’s four public safety departments – Sheriff’s Office; Juvenile Department; District Attorney’s Office and Community Corrections (Adult Parole & Probation); to collectively examine four budget options for FY 2016-2017. These options are: Status quo funding, half-million dollars cut, $1.0 million cut, and $ l.5 million cut. These cuts would be spread between the four departments.
The inclusion of Community Corrections in these scenarios seems peculiar. Most of its funding comes from state government. Cuts in state funding could not be used to reduce the County’s deficit.
The potential cuts to public safety come at a time when the County jail has already reduced its bed space to less than 20% of the facilities physical capacity. Audits from the state have repeatedly found that Coos County’s public safety spending is the second lowest per capita among Oregon’s 36 county governments.
Since at least 2012 Coos County has been advised to develop a plan to manage its budget problems, but the BOC has failed to do so. In 2011 the BOC appointed an advisory body called the Structure Committee to study County operations. The Committee’s 2012 report said that the County’s existing budget “is simply not sustainable.” They recommended the BOC develop a “Plan B” to deal with future revenue short-falls. The committee said, “This is most likely the highest priority policy issue the BOC must deal with in the months and years ahead. Failure to do so effectively could be disastrous.” No “Plan B” was developed.
In 2012 the BOC asked experts at the National Policy Consensus Center in the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University to review “selected administrative issues” in Coos County government. On December 21st 2012 PSU released their report. The PSU report said, “We did not find evidence of quality financial forecasts for the general fund or other major funds.” They recommended the BOC develop yearly financial forecasts projected 5 to 6 years out. They called these forecasts, “a blueprint for the future.” The PSU report also said the forecast, “should help you identify the need to take action to manage any forecasted deficits.” The BOC never developed the recommended budget forecast.
In November 2013 the BOC voted to start a “Financial Contingency Planning” process to respond to anticipated budget shortfalls. The process had five steps that included input from citizens and county employees. The process was to cumulate with the BOC adoption of a “Financial Contingency Plan” in November 2014. Not only did the BOC never adopt this plan, they never even completed any of the five steps in the planning process.
Some people think the County’s Strategic Plan contains a budget plan. It does not. An introductory letter to the Strategic Plan by the BOC says the Plan is “forming a foundation for the development of a Financial Contingency Plan and the County’s annual budget.” The BOC adopted the Strategic Plan on July 7, 2015 but it still never developed the Financial Contingency Plan.
Some critics believe the Strategic Plan is worthless. The BOC meeting minutes from July 7, 2015 records Commissioner Bob Main’s opinion on this issue, “Chair Main said that he read the strategies, and these are mostly things we are doing now. He then said that the document cost the County about $2,100 per page. He said he voted against the contract for Vanessa Becker (author of the plan) because it was done outside the bidding process, but he thinks it was a waste of $21,000.”
Melissa Cribbins and John Sweet have been through 3 yearly budget cycles. Commissioner Bob Main has been through 7. We can hope the Commissioners now have the wisdom to make budget decisions. However, their experience is not a substitute for a written finance plan developed with the participation of citizens and county employees.