Sheriff budget slash draws ire of budget committee members

Budget season means service cuts and tough calls in Josephine County, and Fiscal Year 2024-25 looks to be no different.
At the first meeting of the Josephine County Budget Committee Wednesday, May 15, JoCo Finance Director Sandy Novak stressed how difficult it was to put together a proposed budget with costs rising and revenues shrinking.
“The total budget is $178,292,200 with $147,640,100 spending appropriation and 455.43 full-time equivalent staffing levels,” said Novak. “The total budget adjusted for unappropriated is 7% less than last year with a reduction of 24.6 FTE, almost exclusively through attrition. There will be three layoffs. Six percent of the decline is from capital grants, mainly ARPA, but it also includes the transit hub which was grant-funded. One percent of the budget decline is programmatic.”
Novak asserted, “This budget, with a 7% decline, represents many hard decisions in forward-looking thinking. The goal outlined by the Board of County Commissioners was to be sustainable and agile in uncertain times.”
Giving insight into the process of budgeting during uncertain economic times, the finance director explained, “It’s our express goal to ensure that policies and approaches encourage conservative spending, discourage use it or lose it spending, and provide for allocations of limited resources within the strategic plan. We obtain this goal by using a targeted approach to reductions, not across the board cuts. We do that by considering trends and costs of providing services, considering historic staffing levels, trends and dedicated funding and budget versus actual expenditures.”
She added, “These current revenue restrictions need to be maintained in a strategic manner, especially in a period where expenses are increasing 4 – 10%.”
One point of contention emerged among the committee when law enforcement funding was brought up. Novak explained that due to COVID relief “drying up” and SRS payments being reduced, the percentage of the General Fund being allotted to law enforcement is dropping from 54% to 52%.
Commissioner Herman Baertschiger added, “ARPA funds are designated funds for certain projects, but where it helps us in running the county is we’re able to grasp on to a certain percentage for administrative costs that would help with all that.”
Novak agreed, saying, “We actually put that into reserve for future expenses that got designated. The ARPA 605 and the administration on the ARPA 603 funds all got designated to law enforcement.”

“I guess the point I’m trying to draw attention to is that’s done and gone,” Baertschiger remarked. “This is the last hurrah for that.”

Budget Committee Member Dan Mancuso took issue with law enforcement getting a smaller chunk of funds from the general fund, saying, “When the residents, myself specifically, voted for the law enforcement district we were under the understanding that we were not only going to get the dollars that the levy would afford the sheriff, that we would also continue to get the same service and the level amount of funding from the General Fund.

“Now you’re saying it’s only 2% less. But from what I can tell that math, unless I’m missing something… the sheriff’s getting a lot less money out of the General Fund this year percentage wise than what they should be getting.”

Mancuso asked the question, “Whose decision was it to give the Sheriff’s Department substantially less dollars this year than what they got last year, percentage wise?”

Novak called that a political question, with Commissioner Dan DeYoung following up, “We’re not politicians when we’re on the Budget Committee.”

Novak defended the decision to give the sheriff a lower percentage of the General Fund: “The General Fund is reducing 3.79 FTE. The county as a whole is reducing 24.5 FTE and law enforcement has not been touched except for unfilled positions that were grant-funded. The IMAG positions, about 5.5 of them, have never been filled. We took those out, but other than that their current service level, where everybody else is shrinking, in order to keep them and give them everything we got.”

Mancuso maintained that this proposal was not living up to what voters were promised: “54% of the people in Josephine County voted for something that’s not in this budget and I think the people are going to be pretty upset with that.”

Baertschiger chimed in to argue that other General Fund departments had budget deductions that went as far as state law would allow, given what services the county is mandated to provide: “You can’t say, well, we’re going to give all the money to the sheriff and then we’re going to close these departments. It’s not that simple.”

Novak maintained, “It’s a lot of really hard decisions… If we increased the law enforcement and used up fund balance to do it, the reserves for future expenses are not going to meet the current service level in the next five years.”

“I also don’t think that people anticipated the extreme inflation that we’ve been suffering the past three years,” Baertschiger argued, “so that’s what it is.”

Mancuso countered that actually, “inflation levels are dropping,” prompting Baertschiger to retort that “the costs don’t drop.”

Board Chair John West interjected after Mancuso remarked, “You guys shouldn’t have sold us on something that wasn’t going to happen; I think we bought some smoke and mirrors.”

West sought to clarify that the law enforcement service district was conceived by a citizen advisory group, not the county commissioners. “If any citizen thinks that we can have a budget that never goes up or down and that one number is always going to be held perfect, I don’t think they understand budgeting.”

Mancuso shot back, “Any elected official that thinks the public is too stupid to understand math probably shouldn’t be an elected official.”

After that dig, Baertschiger accused Mancuso of “grandstanding” due to his political aspirations. Mancuso disagreed: “This isn’t a campaign thing; if I was sitting out there, I’d be back there screaming it.”

Novak advised Mancuso that Sheriff Dave Daniel would be presenting before the committee June 4, and the matter could be addressed further at that time.

During public testimony, meeting frequenter Victor Zaitsev said he agreed with Mancuso’s assessment of voter expectations: “My understanding was that it was far less than what was needed for the immediate future and the excess would build over the years to carry the law enforcement sheriff funding well down the road. But apparently that’s not the case.”

At the very end of the meeting, Baertschiger issued a challenge to the citizens of Josephine County regarding law enforcement funding: “We’ve struggled as three commissioners over this question. And so I challenge anybody, anybody, especially everybody here on the board to take this budget book and I will gladly entertain suggestions of where we can find money to move towards that. But just to come up and say, well, a certain percentage has to go; that’s not a solution. So bring the solutions… Show me where we can move the money.”

One citizen who took Baertschiger up on this challenge was former Grants Pass Finance Director Jay Meredith, who submitted to the Budget Committee a proposal for allocating more funds to law enforcement patrols.

Meredith believes that the sheriff would receive $1,533,800 more if his recommendations are heeded.

Among his recommendations:

-Add $87,000 in property tax revenue to make the projection accurate

-Increase the anticipated tax revenue from the new service district by $545,000

-Correct the property tax revenue projections in the Jail / Juvenile Fund to add another $388,000 in revenues to Fund 17

-Cancel the $169,800 transfer to the Jail / Juvenile Fund from the General Fund and instead send this amount to Fund 12

-Increase the transfer from the General Fund to the LE Fund 12 by 5% of the total LE Fund 12 budget, and increase transfers from General Fund to Fund 12 by at least $732,000 in FY25

The Budget Committee’s next meeting will be June 4, 4:30 p.m. in the Anne G. Basker Auditorium, where the following departments will present their requested budgets: Sheriff, Animal Shelter, Public Works, Veterans Services, Public Health and County Clerk.