Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan summarized the county's pragmatic, yet precarious, financial position Monday at a Chamber of Medford/Jackson County Forum gathering.
Thanks to years of savings, the county has managed to withstand financial perils that have driven neighboring counties to the brink.
While some counties borrow money to pay the bills before tax revenue shows up in November, Jackson County has tapped its own reserves.
"Between general and dedicated funds our reserves are almost $82 million," Jordan said. "What that means, generally we are sitting pretty well."
Despite that, the county is planning to dip into its rainy day fund to cover its expenses in the coming year.
"We're not sitting here thinking we don't need to do anything about this problem," he said. "We're looking at other things than just new taxes to close that gap."
Responding to audience questions at the Rogue Valley Country Club, he said the county continues to look for ways to cut expenses and raise revenues. For instance, it has asked its employees unions to move into a self-insurance plan, will create an income stream by renting space in its new health and human services building and also intends to rent jail beds to other agencies.
Asked to compare the plight of local governments in Oregon and California that are in fiscal disarray, Jordan said there are no constitutional provisions for an Oregon city or county to file for bankruptcy. The city of Stockton, Calif., recently filed for bankruptcy protection.
"Even though you heard Curry County say they are going to go bankrupt, there is no legal provision; California actually has provisions for it," Jordan said. "There is going to be some legislative work that has to happen for those things to happen in our state. Some of those counties are not going to make it. It's really going to be a state-level responsibility."
He said counties in Oregon are either general law or home rule counties. The state determines what happens if a general law county were to dissolve, while in a home rule county, the voters would have to approve of changes.
"Klamath, Josephine, Curry and parts of Douglas County all used to belong to Jackson County, if you go back in time," Jordan said. "Normally, when you would dissolve a county you would return to where you were born."
Adding any of those counties' territory to Jackson County would mean this county's residents would be subsidizing their services. That, he said, is not likely to happen.
"The bad thing for those counties," he said, "is that for that to happen, the voters here would have to vote for it because we're a home rule county."
He said the timing has been good for capital projects for the county, which recently built a new Sheriff's Department and is preparing to create the health and human services center in the former Medford post office building.
"We are starting to see a slow recovery in the market. Home prices are starting to go up," Jordan said. "Construction costs are starting to go up. We were able to do a huge amount of capital projects.
"We actually did $22 million in capital projects, which we funded out of the general fund. If you went to most local governments, they'd be asking the voters to pass a bond for those. Some people haven't liked them, but they have been 40 to 50 percent less expensive to do now than five years ago. Since we're seeing a small uptick in the cost each year now, I don't think there is a savings by not investing in those."
In response to a query about new revenue sources, he said there are plenty of opportunities.
"I know a lot of people say, 'Run the county like a business,' and we've done a pretty good job of doing that," Jordan said. "But, 'Don't run the county like a business if it competes with the private sector,' is the next thing that comes. There are options, but they have to be weighed by policy and political implications. Some, people would like and some, maybe they wouldn't like."
Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.