Multnomah County Commissioner tells of budget woes

Find out why MC Commissioner Judy Shiprack says this year’s budget process “should be one for the record books!” See her views on the Wapato Jail. And, is there a new county tax on the horizon? Read this, and discover what we learned.

Lee Powell of Farmer’s Insurance Agency, welcomes members and guests to another Gateway Area Business Association meeting.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Although “speed networking” was high on the agenda, members and guests at last month’s Gateway Area Business Association (GABA) meeting got a candid insight into the activities and issues currently faced by Multnomah County’s Commissioners.

Although she hadn’t planned to be the luncheon meeting’s featured speaker, Multnomah County District 3 Commissioner Judy Shiprack extemporaneously covered many topics of interest to the 30 people present.

Multnomah County District 3 Commissioner Judy Shiprack begins her remarks at this GABA meeting.

Multnomah Food Initiative
Explaining that while Multnomah County served as the convener, Shiprack said that the Multnomah Food Initiative isn’t a government program.

“The result is we now have a ‘Food Action Plan’. There are no government requirements; no ongoing edicts, or funded programs,” Shiprack said. “Really, it is a ‘gathering table’ for the community to express their interest in moving forward in terms of local eating, healthy food, economic development, and access to healthy food in the community.”

County’s budget situation
Before the meeting started, Shiprack reported that Jean DeMaster, of Human Solutions, asked if working on the County’s budget was a frightening experience.

“We should all be frightened about the budget,” Shiprack confided. “There are a lot of vulnerable people who Multnomah County helps directly. And, because of the economy, and we have fewer resources – to take care of more people. This is going to be a budget year for the record books, I’m afraid.”

At this time, Multnomah County’s shortfall is relatively small, said Shiprack – about $5 million. “We will take care of that, and pass a budget in June.  Then, we’ll have to come back probably in August or September, to deal with our share of the State of Oregon’s $3.5 billion budget hole – or shortfall.”

It’s important to look at Multnomah County’s budget as a pie, quipped Shiprack – in reference to the GABA meetings being held at Izzy’s Pizza, in the Gateway Shopping Center.

“The County’s revenue sources can be divided into thirds,” she explained.

  • A third of the general fund revenue comes from property tax;
  • A third comes from business income tax; and,
  • A third of it comes from State and Federal revenue.

“Some funds come directly from the State, although many of our State revenues are actually ‘pass-through’s’ from federal programs. The point is with State and Federal cuts, a third of the money is at risk.”

Commissioner Shiprack says, “We should all be frightened about the budget.”

Says ‘No new tax’
East Portland News asked about rumors that Chair Jeff Cogen is proposing a new tax.

“No, we are not proposing a new tax,” Shiprack responded.

“This [rumor] came from the Portland City Club meeting. Chair Cogen said Multnomah County would really like to see the State remove some of the preemptions that the State has imposed on Multnomah County. The example that he gave was how that we have a State-wide measure for a cigarette tax.

“At first it looked like there was no opposition; and it would go sailing through. But cigarette companies poured millions of dollars into the campaign against the cigarette tax and it failed statewide. However it passed in Multnomah County. Had the question been put to Multnomah County voters: ‘Do you want a cigarette tax to pay for programs that are important to you?’ It would have passed. We would have a tax to pay for those programs. We were preempted by the state from levying this tax only in Multnomah County.”

The Commissioner said they were asking, in the current legislative session, is to relieve the County of that preemption.

“It’s a form of political courage, if the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, the five of us, want to take the heat for asking our voters to approve a tax to pay for a program – for example to provide dentures for seniors who are not getting them under the Oregon Health Plan or Medicare – we will ‘take that heat’, and we will ask our voters.”

Shiprack defined the County’s budget situation as “dynamic” and continued, “We need what former Chair [Ted] Wheeler called ‘robust discussions’ – about how many people will be left to really struggle and suffer if Multnomah County doesn’t have more resources.

“We’re in our eleventh straight year of cutting,” continued Shiprack. “We’ve really picked all of the low-hanging fruit, and we’re still looking for efficiencies. You’ve heard about how Multnomah County employees are losing their jobs; how we’re reorganizing the county. We’re trying to be more administratively efficient, and focus all of our resources.”

Commissioner Shiprack answers questions about Multnomah County’s credit and Wapato Jail.

Says County’s credit is good
David Panichello of OptiCon asked if – like so many other municipalities – the County’s fiscal management has hurt its ability to obtain credit and bonds.

“We’re unlike some communities in California that have run into trouble,” replied Shiprack. “We are so conservative, in our fiscal housekeeping in Multnomah County, that we don’t have that problem. We have a self-imposed limit on the percentage of general fund that we can bond. We are well below that limit.”

That means that “Multnomah County’s credit card” has “a lot of room on it.”

“And that’s a good thing, because we have a courthouse in downtown Portland that is going to fall down in a major earthquake. It’s not a question of if; it’s a question of when. Still, even though we have lots of room on our credit card and our credit is good, we don’t have the revenue to pay the debt service.”

The Wapato Jail question
“I’ve been wearing this albatross of the Wapato Jail since I became a County Commissioner. That empty jail we should wear as a badge of honor.  Crime is going down in our community.”

Overall, Multnomah County has a total of 1,800 jail beds, Shiprack observed. “And we’re operating 1,300 jail beds. The 520 empty beds sitting out in North Portland are there because we have managed our system so well. We’re in a situation that, if it were opened tomorrow, everybody would be screaming about what it costs to operate 525 jail beds.”

GABA looking for Keystone Kops (and new members)
In other Association news, Powell pitched members to join the Gateway Keystone Kops brigade. “Using skits, broad humor, old-style police uniforms and prisoner outfits, these GABA members are our public relations arm.” To volunteer, call Kop Kaptain Brad Sanchez at (503) 421-1560, or email BradRSanchez@aol.com.

He also announced that the Gateway Area Business Association’s annual FUN-O-RAMA Community Fair at will be held at 111th Square on Saturday, May 21st.

GABA now meets on the second Wednesday of each month at Izzy’s Pizza, 1307 NE 102nd Avenue (in the Gateway Fred Meyer Shopping Center).

For more information, see their website: CLICK HERE.

© 2011 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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