Chamber crowd seeks budget answers

Speaking to Monday's Chamber Forum in Medford, Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan laid out the steps the county has taken to deal with a $6.8 million budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year. Then he and Commissioner Don Skundrick braced themselves for questions.

But rather than taking a broadside, the pair appeared to get a sympathetic response, with questions focused on what can be done to help the county get out from under some financial burdens.

One of those expenses — the Public Employment Retirement System — continues to dig deeply into the county's financial foundation, adding an unanticipated $1.8 million in the coming year to an already growing shortfall.

Jordan said local governments will get some relief, with the Legislature reducing the required contributions for public entities but said that doesn't begin to solve the long-term problem.

He also noted that there is a misconception that current public employees are at the root of the PERS problem.

"It's not the employees today who are creating the huge rates," Jordan said. "It's employees that have already retired out of the system under their lucrative options."

Two other PERS changes — cost-of-living caps and stipend changes for retirees moving out of Oregon — are less helpful for Jackson County than the Portland area.

"Our wages are significantly lower, on average, than metro areas," Jordan said. "So what it means is that caps are put in place for higher-income retirees. Ours tend to be at the lower end of the spectrum because we have lower wages down here. So the metro area will get a bigger kick for their pools of people."

Asked by an audience member about the impact of surrounding counties' financial woes, Skundrick pointed to public safety issues. He said Jackson County is not obligated to help its neighbors, but when a crisis arises, the instinct is to step in to protect life and property, regardless of political boundaries.

"Sheriff (Mike) Winters is going to step across county lines, when asked, as best as he can," Skundrick said. "We've talked to him about that, quite honestly. It's great to be a good guy and a good Samaritan. But we have costs and such. It's hard, and in his makeup, he wants to help. He's responded for Josephine County, chasing folks across the line."

Skundrick also noted that the Oregon State Police have moved officers out of Jackson County and into Josephine County because of the lack of police protection there.

Jordan said an example of the impact on local police comes when Jackson County deputies take someone into custody who has an outstanding warrant from Josephine County. The suspect is frequently released because Josephine County has no jail space and often couldn't prosecute the case even if it did have space.

"They (deputies) are required by law to arrest someone they confront with a warrant," Jordan said. "We have a deputy spending four hours, arresting someone, taking them to jail, lodging them and taking up space in our jail. We call Josephine County and they say, 'We don't have anybody to come and get them. Let them out.' "

Asked what constituents should tell Oregon's congressional delegation about the county's situation, Skundrick immediately said there is a desperate need for access to federal timber and said members of Congress need to find some compromise that will create more jobs by allowing more logging.

"Get something that can get through both houses of Congress that the president will sign that makes sense, using industry input as well as understanding the whole environmental issues that have to be dealt with," Skundrick said.

He also said higher education and work force development agencies are necessary to help with transition and retraining for workers.

Skundrick noted the county's unemployment rate of about 10 percent is a misleading figure.

"Really, our real unemployment is at 20 percent," he said. "We've got to do something about that."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness, and read his blog at Edge.

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