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Oakridge City Budget Committee meetings #5 and #6: “Bloody and brutal”

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By KATE DOLAN/ for The Herald  —  The discussion of the proposed FY23-24 city budget continued this week over two Budget Committee meetings on Monday and Wednesday evenings. Meetings #5 and #6 saw the committee making budget revisions, cuts, and reductions in order to confront the city’s stark economic circumstances.

Mayor’s directive: expenditures must equal revenue

On Monday evening, City Administrator James Cleavenger announced that he and staff worked all week to make significant reductions to department budgets after removing beginning fund balances. This was in response to a motion made by Mayor Bryan Cutchen at the May 15 meeting, which requested that beginning fund balances be removed. Most budgets are operating in a deficit and the motion was made to get departments to only spend what they intend to take in.

Cleavenger called the process of making so many reductions, “bloody, to be blunt.”

Cuts to balance the budget may be severe

“When you try to remove over $2 million from a budget our size, there’s a lot of cuts,” he said. “We did our best to try to keep emergency services intact to the extent possible, but it still resulted in losing one police officer, losing all part time fire and EMS staff, and potentially closing the library, including lay off of the librarian.” He continued to present what the theoretical cuts would look like, and included the loss of city parks, bus service, and a large portion of the public works budget.

The mayor’s reasoning behind the request to remove the beginning fund balances, which was approved at the prior committee meeting, is part of an effort to make the city solvent. Funds are severely low. Removing the beginning fund balance allows a department to accurately work with the resources they have and not spend what they won’t take in.

Learning to do things differently

“It was educational for us to look at those numbers, however, it’s been this city’s practice and most cities in Oregon, to include beginning fund balances,” said Cleavenger. He clarified that those balances are left-over money from the year before that hasn’t been spent. He expressed his opinion that beginning fund balances should be included in budgets.

Committee members agreed that the cuts would make Oakridge a place where people would not want to live.

“I appreciate everything you and staff did,” Councilor Jan Hooker said, addressing the committee via Zoom. “I understand what Bryan was getting at, however, I do believe that in my own mind I don’t want to see us end up like Sumpter or some place like that, where we end up a ghost town. If we close the parks, kids have nothing to do.”

The first hour of discussion revealed just how severe things are in Oakridge in terms of revenues and expenditures. The Mayor said that he did not see any efforts at reductions in the original budgets presented to the committee. He emphasized that frugality is essential in order to ensure that there is money in future years.

“It’s brutal”…”we gotta do something”

The mayor responded to Cleavenger’s presentation and hearing about what the results would do to the city, saying, “the non-beginning fund balances, it’s brutal and probably not acceptable.”

“But, to not try to save any money to me is ludicrous,” said Mayor Cutchen. “We gotta do something.”

Committee members agreed on the need for a plan and went back and forth on what were considered reasonable cuts and where possible revenues could come from.

A dire need to increase revenue

Cleavenger presented a list of possible ways to increase revenues including increasing fees, a hotel tax, and franchise fees. He mentioned that a new project is about to launch that seeks to collect business license fees from businesses that have not paid them. Councilor Dawn Kinyon suggested that reductions could be made in municipal courts.

Police Chief Kevin Martin, who was looking at losing a police officer if cuts were made, said, “we have to raise revenues or we have to make cuts.”

“There is no middle ground,” said Chief Martin. “At some point in time, we have to say the public safety fee has to be $50 a month to pay for public safety, or we have to cut public safety.”

Safety fee increase suggested

The question of enforcing the public safety fee came up, as committee members noted that not all citizens comply. The public safety fee in Oakridge is currently $22 a month. From July – April, the city received $223,728 in fees but billed out $289, 623.

Committee members discussed the importance of educating Oakridge citizens about the need for increased revenue and the status of city finances in order to raise awareness of the need to pay fees.

On Wednesday night, the committee spent the time revising changes to each fund’s budget. The committee approved the tax levy at the rate of $7.1196 per $1000 of assessed value. The committee also approved participating in the State Revenue Sharing Program.

Additional meetings scheduled

An additional meeting was added for Tuesday, May 30, to continue the discussion of the proposed FY23-24 budget. The meeting agenda includes the recommended motion for the approval of the budget. If approved by the committee, it will be sent to the City Council for a Budget Hearing (scheduled for June 7, 2023 at 6pm) and adoption.

Kate Dolan is a freelance writer with experience as a general assignment reporter and copywriter. She is an a cappella singer and enjoys playing soccer.

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