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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Budget committee approves $573.8 million county budget

Vickie Aldous Mail Tribune

MEDFORD, Ore. — The Jackson County Budget Committee unanimously approved a $573.8 million annual budget that includes $209.1 million in reserves.

The committee, made up of three county residents and the three county commissioners, made the decision Thursday. The budget needs final approval at a coming county commissioner meeting before going into effect in July for the fiscal year.

In government accounting, governments have to add spending plus reserves to equal their budget totals.

Commissioner Colleen Roberts said citizens may be alarmed when they see a budget of more than a half billion dollars, but the total includes sizable reserves.

Jackson County has steadily strengthened its financial condition over the past decade, and got another big boost from federal aid, including $42.8 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, which was passed by Congress during the COVID-19 pandemic.

County Administrator Danny Jordan said some residents say the county should use its reserves to pay for needs like a bigger jail. However, he said about half of the county’s reserves are tied to specific areas.

Federal Aviation Administration grants, for example, have to be used for the county-run Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport.

Craig Morris, a citizen member of the Budget Committee, said the county has made wise financial decisions, like self-insuring its employees to avoid high health insurance costs and setting aside extra money for Public Employee Retirement System obligations to get matching state dollars.

Jackson County’s strong financial condition contrasts with the struggles of some other local governments. The city of Ashland is proposing across-the-board cuts to address its financial woes. Josephine County is pondering increased taxes or layoffs after county commissioners and the sheriff there hired patrol deputies without sustainable funding and now face a multi-million dollar deficit for the sheriff’s office.

Under the proposed budget, the Jackson County property tax rate would remain the same at $2.01 per $1,000 of assessed value. That equals $402 for the owner of a home assessed at $200,000. Assessed values average 64% of real market values in Jackson County.

April Sevcik, a citizen member of the Jackson County Budget Committee, commended county staff for their hard work on the budget and for their efforts to help the community.

Jackson County has played a leading role during the COVID-19 pandemic and recovery efforts after the 2020 Almeda and South Obenchain fires destroyed or damaged 2,600 homes and 200 businesses.

“With what they’ve been through, I just want to thank them, and we should honor them,” Sevcik said of county staff.

The Development Services Department set up a Wildfire Resource Permit Center in Medford to help speed rebuilding after the fires. The department will keep the center running, while continuing to handle regular building applications.

Department planning staff processed 1,195 projects over a year, which equals 300 projects per planner, said Development Services Director Ted Zuk.

The strain on the department’s code enforcement staff skyrocketed with the proliferation of hemp and marijuana grows and processing operations in the Rogue Valley.

In 2015, code enforcement dealt with 605 cases, none of which were cannabis related. In 2021, they had 1,878 cases, and 1,094 involved complaints about cannabis operations, Zuk said.

Jackson County Health and Human Services has been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The department delivered 34,733 immunizations, of which 32,679 were for COVID-19. Of 22,650 communicable disease investigations, about 21,000 were for COVID-19, said Health and Human Services Director Stacy Brubaker.

For Jackson County government as a whole, the county plans to add 47.6 full-time equivalent workers, lifting its workforce to 938.2 full-time equivalent workers.

About half of those new hires are for public health, mental health and developmental disabilities workers for the Health and Human Services Department.

The settlement of a federal lawsuit is requiring the state and counties to provide more services for developmentally disabled people, Jordan said.

Over at the airport, Director Jerry Brienza said passenger counts continue to rebound after dropping off in 2020 during the first year of the pandemic.

This year, Brienza predicts passenger counts will rise higher than the record set in 2019, when 1,087,873 passengers took off or arrived on commercial flights.

“We’re still projecting an 11% increase in passengers over 2019. That is, of course, if nothing drastic happens,” he said, noting the possibility of another pandemic surge or unforeseen developments like an airline cutting routes.

Brienza said the airport is in good financial shape, especially after receiving an infusion of COVID-19 aid from Congress and the FAA.

The Jackson County Expo is also on the rebound and planning a full slate of traditional and new events. During the pandemic when events like concerts were canceled, The Expo operated with a skeleton staff, but still provided major help as a site for COVID-19 vaccinations, safety supply distributions and shelter for people who fled the 2020 fires.

The Jackson County Roads and Parks Department helped coordinate fire cleanup efforts, plus housing for fire survivors at its Southern Oregon RV Park and other sites.

The department will continue to maintain and improve roads, while also tackling new projects like a new Howard Prairie marina and deferred maintenance for the parks system, said Steve Lambert, director of the department.

The department paid off its construction loan for the Southern Oregon RV Park and took over management of Joseph Stewart Park, which had previously been managed by the state. Revenue from the RV park and former state park will help stabilize the park system’s finances, Lambert said.

Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler said his department will continue to tackle crime issues, including illegal marijuana grows.

Increased funding, strong partnerships with other agencies and changes in state law will help law enforcement deal with illegal marijuana, he said.

“Hopefully, this year will be better than last year,” Sickler said.

In December 2021, the Oregon Legislature dedicated $25 million to boost enforcement efforts against illegal marijuana operations in 2022 and to tackle the theft of water for grows. The Legislature is also allowing a moratorium on new hemp licenses in Jackson County and any other county that asks the state to stop issuing new licenses.

Many growers are raising marijuana under the guise of hemp, which doesn’t get users high and is legal nationwide. Marijuana is legal in Oregon but illegal at the federal level.

In 2021, law enforcement agencies in Jackson, Josephine, Klamath and Douglas counties busted illegal operations with an estimated $2.78 billion worth of black market marijuana, according to a multi-county analysis by the Mail Tribune.

Although the scale of the busts and the size of the marijuana operations were unprecedented, police believe they found only a fraction of the illegal growing, processing, storage and shipping sites in Southern Oregon. Organized crime networks traffic Oregon-grown marijuana to states where it remains illegal — and fetches higher prices.

The $2.78 billion in illegal marijuana found in Southern Oregon dwarfs the nearly $1.2 billion in legal marijuana sold at shops in the entire state in 2021.

At the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office, District Attorney Beth Heckert said prosecutors are dealing with a backlog of cases from COVID-19 safety restrictions on courts.

Homicide cases that once took one to one-and-a-half years to resolve are now taking two or three years. The Jackson County Jail is holding 24 people who are being prosecuted for murder, Heckert said.

The DA’s office is dealing with challenges to past convictions after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled two years ago that defendants in criminal trials can’t be convicted by nonunanimous juries. Only Oregon and Louisiana had allowed such convictions.

The DA’s office received 415 challenges to past convictions in 2021 and has already received 718 challenges in the first quarter of this year. Two lawyers in the office are assigned to review those cases, Heckert said.