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SW Oregon officials criticize state furlough plan

A proposal by Gov. Ted Kulongoski for unionized state workers to take 26 unpaid furlough days to help meet a budget shortfall doesn't sit well with those who could be affected in southwestern Oregon.

If enacted, the furloughs could affect every state department, from human services to the state police, with what amounts to nearly a month off without pay during the 2009-2011 budget cycle.

"That's a significant cut that, within our section, could end up costing more than saving anything," said Don Bruland, director of Senior and Disability Services for the Rogue Valley Council of Governments who oversees some 130 employees in Jackson and Josephine counties. Most of them are Oregon Department of Human Services employees, he said.

"Central to keeping costs down is helping people stay in their own homes as long as possible," he said. "That takes staff time, working with individuals and family, to try to put together a plan that will keep them at home.

"If they go into a facility, that will cost far more."

Reducing his staff's hours would mean more people they work with having to go to facilities, he said.

"It (furlough proposal) may work in certain areas to save money, but in our section it would end up costing the state money," he said.

The suggested 26 furlough days would drastically reduce Oregon State Police protection, particularly in rural areas, said Jeff Leighty, president of the Oregon State Police Officers Association.

"Just pick the days you don't want a state trooper on the road," he said.

However, like other department representatives, he stressed that negotiations are still under way with no decisions yet made.

"But it would have a large impact if it comes to that," he said of the furloughs. "If one person takes a day off, you wouldn't have anyone working for that person that day."

The proposal amounts to a 5 percent pay cut which, if all state workers comply, including union and nonunion employees, would save $105 million for the state, according to the governor's office. Kulongoski already has announced pay cuts and freezes for executives and managers not represented by unions. He will cut his own $93,600 salary by 5 percent.

Kulongoski spokesman Rem Niven called Monday's request an opening position. "This proposal is designed to address the difficult budget situation we're in and mitigate or avoid any potential layoffs as much as possible," he told The Associated Press.

The state is expecting a deficit of up to $3 billion because of projected low tax revenues in the next biennium, the AP reported.

Mandatory furloughs would affect Southern Oregon University but it will be next week before specifics are known, said SOU spokesman Jim Beaver.

Brian Ballou, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry's Southwest Oregon District headquartered in Central Point where about 50 percent of the staff is unionized, is also waiting for decisions to be made.

"It's still pretty fluid now, but one of the known affects would be on our stewardship foresters," he said.

"They are ones who meet directly with those who have forestlands for industry purposes or family investment purposes," he said. "The stewardship forester helps them manage the land for future timber production or to improve forest heath. That's a significant program down here."

The ODF has one stewardship forester serving both Jackson and Josephine counties, he said.

"That's a position where we don't want to have a reduction here," he said.

Other potential local cuts could be among forest officers whose firefighting experience is always in high demand during a wildfire, another crucial service, he said.

"This may affect whether we can keep some forest officers when fire season is here," he said. He reiterated that no decision has been made at the state level.

No one expects the economic downturn to not cause financial pain, Bruland said.

"These are tough times — everybody knows we all need to look at making some sacrifices," he said. "Be we need to look at the whole."

That will take some time, he added.

"Right now, there are lots of ideas out there," he said. "They will sort themselves out just as our budget will be sorted out."