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Commentary: Oakridge budget has become a shell game with no winners

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GEORGE CUSTER/Editor  —  What’s going to happen to your City when the potholes aren’t patched; when the wastewater treatment plant doesn’t get repaired; or when many of the services you’ve come to expect go away? If they don’t go away, it will be because the rate you pay for those services will have gone through the roof. More frightening, however, would be that the City could go into default.

Balancing a city’s budget is a serious matter. Experts, who know the laws and procedures, need to do this. Accounting for your tax dollars must follow a method prescribed by the State of Oregon. If not, serious consequences will befall the City. But you, the residents and taxpayers of Oakridge, would feel the pain most.

The conundrum: What exactly was passed?

During the City Council regular meeting of July 7th, a letter from Mr. Bryan Cutchen to the City Council was read into the record. The letter outlined a number of flaws in the recently-adopted City Budget. Councilor Kinyon made a statement after the letter was read. She said that the items mentioned in his letter had already been “fixed”. It was also stated that Mr. Cutchen must have received the wrong copy of the budget. Which was it? Did he get the wrong copy or were the items mentioned “fixed”? What does that mean? Who fixed them and when? It certainly wasn’t fixed by the Budget Committee. The budget that the committee sent to the Council was a proposed budget.

The Council adopted the proposed budget with only two minor changes. Those two items amounted to very little change to the overall budget and was within their scope to do so. There were no “fixes”. It was just an arrogant response to Mr. Cutchen’s letter to council during the meeting. Kinyon evidently felt that something had to be said to the viewing public to counter his allegations.

It would be against Oregon statute for the Council to “fix” the budget by more than a small amount, per ORS 294.473. After July 1st, a supplemental budget would be required for the amounts supposedly “fixed”. That process involves being brought before the public once more. The Budget Committee need not be involved, however.

Which “final draft” was the correct one?

If Bryan Cutchen had been given the wrong draft budget by city staff the afternoon before the budget hearing, as per council’s flippant remark, then the public was also given the wrong document and was unable to participate in the open budget hearing process as well.

It is not just a right, but also a responsibility to be involved in your local government’s activities. This is especially true when it comes to how your city spends your tax dollars.

Budget committee input

When The Herald attempted to interview members of the budget committee, most all refused to comment. One member did sing praise of Councilor Kinyon’s financial acumen during a telephone interview. That committee member, though, would not comment on the preparation of budget.

However, Budget Committee member Ben Sachdeva, a financial analyst, was amenable to an interview. He stated that the Council mostly drove the budget process, as would be expected. It appeared to Sachdeva that ARPA funds, however, were being used without regard to their previously being appropriated to specific projects and to fill big voids in the budget. He did acknowledge that he understood that most of the Council and staff are new to the process.

ARPA funds received from the County should have been fenced off. Once they were allocated last year, those funds should have been transferred, as promised, to those accounts. Instead, once the previous finance director and city administrator left, those funds were pocketed into the general fund.

Why the secrecy and misinformation?

Cutchen’s first letter to the Council reminded them that ARPA funds from last year were appropriated to several specific projects. Most of those funds, if any, were never transferred into those line items.

His second letter to the council spelled out what still needed to be done to correct the budget. In his third letter to the council, he accepted that the current Council is inexperienced at developing the budget, despite their own bravado and back-slapping to the contrary.

Mr. Cutchen has, with his extensive background in budgeting, done all of this work for no personal gain. He is volunteering his time. Cutchen has worked behind the scenes with both the finance director and both of the interim city administrators to assist them in their new positions. This was all done to help the city that he and his wife now call home.

Why was the proposed budget that was to be voted on by Council not made available to the public when passed? This also runs counter to ORS 194. Maybe they didn’t have to, but you have to wonder why?

I’m quite certain that many of the citizens of Oakridge are just fine letting the Oakridge City Council just do things the way they want; bending or sometimes breaking the rules to suit their purported needs. Who are these other rabble rousers to question the State of Oregon’s budget process laws? There’s also another set of Oregon laws pertaining to transparency…

Our current council campaigned on being transparent

HB 2370 passed in 2013, required the State of Oregon to establish a transparency reporting website. The website requires transparency reporting in the revenues, expenditures, and budgets of public bodies.

How is it that Oakridge went from having a significant shortfall of funds last year to a balanced budget this year with less money? The council chose not to do a supplemental budget, as suggested by then City Administrator Cutchen. To now transfer those funds into this year’s budget would mean that this year’s starting balances are short by that amount.

Finance director Shirley has recently told the council that some funds that were allocated, but not expensed last year, may have to be paid back. “Rolling over” funds that were allocated, but not expensed, still leaves a hole in those line items from last year. This creates a flawed beginning balance.

An example: FEMA funds that were made available to Oakridge for the COVID vaccination clinic. The City ran an efficient, part-time clinic, greatly reducing the expenditure. The remaining funds should be paid back before the city goes on a spending spree.

A shell game that works for now

The council has now decided that they need to have work sessions to decide if Oakridge can rescind the public safety fee. Councilor Kinyon presented her form of accounting to justify abandoning the PSF. Now, Kinyon thinks she can divey up the ARPA funds to now “fix” all the problems brought to her attention by Mr. Cutchen. She has tried to understand what Cutchen has voluntarily offered to correct the budget. However, Kinyon is playing this shell game to her liking. It will catch up to her and the rest of the council. More importantly, it will catch up to the taxpayers.

If the “approved” budget was just fine when passed, why has the council now had several work sessions on the budget? Councilor Kinyon was adamant, during one of her presentations, that the public safety fee (PSF) can be rescinded. However, in the next budget work session, Mayor Hollett was asking about how the City might now enforce the PSF, via property liens, fines, or by other options. Also, there was discussed that contingency funds might be diverted to fill gaps.

From balanced to “What went wrong?”

So, which is it? Does anybody know the status of the budget? When will it be announced that a supplemental budget is forthcoming, if ever? Who will critically audit that supplemental budget?

Mayor Hollett believes that she will orchestrate a fire and EMS district that will solve the case of the albatross that is that fund. Nobody else is biting on that idea, however. If, and that’s a big if, that should happen, it will take at least a year to go through that process. In the meantime, how far will Oakridge go into the hole waiting for that to happen? More smoke and mirrors?

The City Council, in their self-righteousness, will never admit that Mr. Cutchen has opened their eyes to some glaring errors in the city’s budget that they are now scrambling to correct.

Instead, the council continues to have work sessions on the budget, now for over a month and a half, trying to get it together. Dipping into contingencies has been discussed. The Oregon Department of Revenue Rule 150-294.350 states, specifically, that it…cannot be made in place of an estimate for expenditures which are known to be necessary and can be anticipated. It must not be used to cover up improper or loose budgeting practices. It must not be used as a “savings account” in which to sequester excess revenues.

All of Oakridge will be affected by the current crisis

However, all the citizens of Oakridge should be deeply concerned. Many residents have questioned the future of a number of the city’s services already. Oakridge currently sits on the precipice of a financial situation that could have a significant impact on all our daily lives. Mr. Cutchen was just the messenger of the bad news. All of Oakridge’s citizens, however, will feel the impact.

When the checks are written, and an accounting of the ARPA, FEMA, and other grant funds are audited, things could get messy, very quickly. There’s also the requirement of the City’s auditing of the books. Councilors can be held personally liable by Oregon’s Department of Revenue laws.

None of this is of any consequence, though. Oakridge is flush with funds, right?










































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































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