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Budget committee approves $474 million Jackson County budget

County financial reserves top $190 million

The Jackson County Budget Committee unanimously approved a $474 million budget this week for the county government.

The budget for the coming fiscal year that starts July 1 includes $190.1 million in reserves, ending fund balances and contingency funds.

Despite the challenges of COVID-19 and destructive September fires, the county remains on strong financial footing

The Jackson County Sheriff's Office was on the front lines of both disasters.

While some other counties in the state reduced their jail capacity by 50% or more in response to the pandemic, the Jackson County Jail run by the sheriff's office kept more people behind bars.

"We stayed at about 75% because we've been through minimizing our jail capacity in the past and we've had first-hand experience with what it did to our community," said Sheriff Nathan Sickler.

Years ago, the county saw crime rates rise after closing a section of the jail. Since becoming sheriff, Sickler and his employees have worked to use all available space in the jail to house inmates.

Unlike jails in some counties, Sickler said, the jail didn't refuse to accept certain suspects. The sheriff's office instead asked police to use discretion on whether to bring people in.

"We didn't want to create the perception that you had to commit a certain level of offense to come to our jail," he said.

Sickler said the jail did suffer a COVID-19 outbreak involving 22 adults in custody.

When destructive fires hit Jackson County in September 2020, the sheriff's office worked to evacuate residents, helped manage evacuation zones and aided efforts to get closed areas reopened after evacuation orders were lifted, Sickler said.

During 2020, the search-and-rescue division mounted 165 missions with the aid of volunteers who pitched in 15,207 hours.

"It was the highest in the state yet again," Sickler said of the missions.

He said the sheriff's office is working with a consultant on cultural agility training to serve the diverse community. The first employees prioritized to receive the training are sworn staff who are armed, followed by nonsworn staff.

"It's important for our community and it's important for our agency to invest in this," Sickler said.

The Jackson County Community Justice Department handles adult probation, the transition center and juvenile justice.

The department will eliminate eight positions in the coming fiscal year due to impacts from state Measure 110, which decriminalized possession of user quantities of drugs such as heroin, meth and cocaine while also reducing penalties for possessing larger amounts.

The Jackson County District Attorney's Office expects to see fewer prosecutions of drug possession cases, said District Attorney Beth Heckert.

Her office plans to track statistics to see whether there is an increase in property crimes as people facing addiction don't face punishment through the criminal justice system.

As for helping the community rebuild after the September 2020 fires, the Jackson County Development Services Department is facing a shortage of planners to stay fully staffed.

Older planning professionals are retiring and working planners can make more in the private sector than in government, said Development Services Director Ted Zuk.

"This is not a Jackson County problem. This is statewide. It's gotten worse," he said.

Jackson County has asked the Oregon Legislature for $710,000 to contract with outside workers to boost its ability to process building applications.

The county is also seeking nearly $9.6 million from the Legislature so it can waive building fees for fire survivors.

The Expo, which normally hosts events such as the fair and concerts, will see its budget drop from $3.5 million this fiscal year to nearly $2.7 million in the coming fiscal year.

The Expo hasn’t been earning revenue off large events because of COVID-19 restrictions, but it has tapped into other sources of revenue, such as renting space to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Over the past year, The Expo has been put to use as a wildfire evacuation shelter, a COVID-19 vaccination site and a place to distribute personal protective equipment such as masks and sanitizer.

Expo Director Helen Funk said every county department has helped with the COVID-19 and fire responses.

"They stepped in like heroes," she said.

The Jackson County Roads and Parks Department is continuing its focus on preventative maintenance to keep the road network in good condition. Roads that fall into poor condition are much more expensive to repair, said John Vial, director of the department.

Jackson County made a deal with the state to take over Joseph Stewart State Park, which will be a source of revenue to benefit the whole parks system, he said.

Adequate water levels at Lost Creek Lake will help offset conditions at Emigrant Lake and Howard Prairie Lake, which have record low water levels, Vial said.

The county's Southern Oregon RV Park is filled to capacity with fire survivors. FEMA and the state are paying to house them at the park.

That income will help the county more quickly pay off the debt that was incurred to build the RV park, Vial said.

The Jackson County Budget Committee is made up of Jackson County's three elected commissioners plus citizen members Craig Morris, April Sevcik and John Rachor.

The adopted budget for the current fiscal year that ends June 30 is $429.8 million, which includes nearly $173.6 million in financial reserves.

Governments must include spending plus savings in their budget totals.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.