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Lane County Budget Cuts To Hit Hard

Lane County’s budget misery has only just begun. The county’s budget committee approved the proposed budget in May, and the cuts kick in at the beginning of the fiscal year, July 1, with cuts already taking place.

Though much of the media furor has been over issues such as cuts to the jail and the sheriff’s office, the cuts are hitting the public services designed to keep people out of jail and healthy just as hard. And local AFSCME union representative Jim Steiner says some of the cuts may cost more money than they save. 

The Oregon secretary of state’s office has chosen Lane as one of eight Oregon counties it will monitor “based upon 10 financial, economic and demographic indicators.” A report released on May 31 says that on the positive side, Lane County has a low debt burden and it “also has good liquidity and the fifth largest fund balance in Oregon.” On the other hand, in 2011 Lane “ranked next to last in per capita local revenues,” and the county’s permanent tax rate is the seventh lowest rate in Oregon. Lane is also in the bottom third of Oregon counties on public safety spending.

The Lane County jail has been issuing reports of “capacity based releases,” or as the county likes to call them, CBRs, of inmates from the jail due to reduced jail beds. Who to release is decided in part by a score in a program called the “risk assessment tool” or for short, the RAT. The “score takes a plethora of data into account including the defendant/ offender’s current charges, past convictions and rate of failure to appear in court,” according to a news release by Sgt. Carrie Carver.

Steiner, who represents the county’s AFSCME union, says the recent decision by the conservative majority on the County Commission to contract out jail health care services to a health care company called Corizon instead of using union nurses could actually cost money in the long run. Steiner says the union had requested a line-by-line explanation of how contracting out to Corizon would save money despite not reducing the number of staff, but says the county “said they couldn’t do that.”

A health care expert’s report on Corizon’s work at the Idaho State Correctional Institution says nursing mistakes or failures were likely to have resulted in some inmate deaths and one inmate wasn’t told for seven months that he probably had cancer. Terminal and long-term care inmates sometimes went unfed and were left in soiled linens, the report said. If inmates were to file lawsuits over poor care, this could cost the county money, Steiner says. 

He also questions the county’s $191 million in investments while spending $5 million to $6 million each year to pay down more than $102 million in debt. “Why not look at liquidating some of those investments to pay off the debt?” Steiner asks. He says this question was not adequately addressed at the budget committee meeting.

County Administrator Liane Richardson did not respond to a request for comment on this before press time.

The county has more than $3 million invested with the Tennessee Valley Authority. The TVA is probably best known among conservationists for building dams that threatened to wipe out the endangered snail darter. These days the TVA has solar projects, a number of coal-fired plants and several nuclear power plants as well.