Sheriff Challenges Leadership over Management of County Finances; Chair Responds

Update: Sheriff Roberts has responded to Chair Bernard’s Feb. 7 letter. You can read that here.

Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts has challenged leadership over the county’s financial state and how it got there, in the midst of a new messaging campaign about the need to make cuts and “right-size” the county’s budget.

Roberts is calling for an independent and transparent analysis of the county’s financial practices by a third-party auditor, as leaders face a looming budget gap and significant departmental cuts in the next fiscal year, despite steady growth in the county’s population and tax base.

“On behalf of our employees and on behalf of the community we serve, I have an obligation to ask: In a robust economy with increasing growth and revenue, how did this financial crisis happen?” Sheriff Roberts asks in an op-ed shared with news media and subscribers across the state.

The county recently completed a public survey rating various services that may find themselves on the chopping block in the upcoming budget process. The highest-polling services were those related to law and justice, including the sheriff’s office and district attorney.

Roberts says he — along with all county departments — has been asked to prepare “budget-cut scenarios” of 5, 10 and 15 percent — a development he described as “astonishing.”

“On Thursday, Feb. 6, I delivered to County Chair Jim Bernard a letter asking the Board Of County Commissioners to engage an independent firm to conduct a forensic financial analysis to review the County Finance Department’s financial management practices,” Roberts says. “We need to know why and how the County General Fund is reportedly facing an estimated $8 million to $12 million deficit, in a time of unprecedented County growth.”

The county says the budget for its current fiscal year is balanced (which is required by law), but this was accomplished by “drawing down one-time reserves that cannot be used again.” Meanwhile, the county is looking to build a new $230 million courthouse, which Roberts believes will receive funding from the county general fund if voters turn down a proposed bond measure.

“Polling shows there is currently inadequate voter support for that general obligation bond,” Roberts says. “Commissioners will almost certainly draw on General Fund dollars — the same dollars they’re currently asking us to slash from our budgets — to ensure the courthouse’s construction.”

The following day, Clackamas County Chair Jim Bernard responded, claiming there were “several inaccuracies” in the sheriff’s letter and expressing the need to “set the record straight.”

“The county’s general fund is not in a crisis,” he says. “There is no mismanagement of public funds. The county has balanced its budget year after year, as is required by state law.”

He admits the county budget is “not on a sustainable path, due to expenses outpacing revenues.” The county has indeed grown — a point of agreement between the two elected officials — which has increased revenue, but also, demand for services.

Bernard said an external auditor was contracted last year to review the practices and operations of the county finance department, which led to “leadership restructuring” of that department in January. The department is now “overhauling its systems and procedures, including written policies,” Bernard says.

The chair also said there have been no decisions made as to how the new courthouse will be funded, and he maintained that the current budget challenges are unrelated to the project.

“The county is pursuing a new county courthouse at this time because the State of Oregon is paying half the costs of new courthouse construction,” Bernard said. “Leaving these state dollars on the table would be irresponsible when there is a serious need for a new county courthouse for safety and justice reasons.”

Public safety is a top priority of the county, Bernard said, adding that 50 percent of the county’s general fund goes to the sheriff’s office.

“This current fiscal year, the Sheriff’s Office received $5.5 million in additional general funds to keep your department budget whole,” Bernard said. “To maintain this level of general fund support to the Sheriff’s Office, other important services that also rely on the general fund, such as juvenile services, victim and family services, veterans services, parks and libraries, all which rank high in public support, will likely be reduced.”

In his own letter, Sheriff Roberts said his office has already worked for the past decade to streamline operations, including eliminating positions in prior budget cuts.

“From 2009-19, CCSO’s calls for service increased 60.5 percent and the county’s population increased by over 43,000 people,” he says. “In that same time period, our Patrol deputy staffing numbers remained unchanged. We are doing incredible work, but we are not keeping pace with county growth.”

You can read Sheriff Roberts’ complete op-ed here, and Chair Bernard’s response here.

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