A significant budget shortfall in Harney County and the sheriff’s announcement of his resignation by the end of the year drew the attention of the Grant County Court at its April 24 meeting.
In March, Harney County Judge Pete Runnels told the Burns Times-Herald that the county had identified a software issue that had caused the county to begin each fiscal year with an inaccurate general fund balance over the past few years.
Runnels said steps were taken in October to begin reducing county expenses, but larger cuts and adjustments would need to be made in the next fiscal year budget to address the shortcomings.
“It took us several years to get to this point, and we won’t come out of it overnight,” he told the newspaper.
Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward announced his intent to resign by Dec. 31 in an op-ed in the April 17 Burns Times-Herald. He said insufficient funding and staffing as a result of the budget shortfall had negatively impacted law enforcement and search and rescue services.
“As well, our severely outdated county jail is not only underfunded but is out of compliance with the standards required by law and has been understaffed for years,” Ward said.
Ward told the Eagle the county estimated the shortfall at $2.3 million. He said he was no longer willing to accept the civil liability resulting from the underfunding and was unwilling to cut services or continue operating a jail that did not meet standards.
“In my assessment, the only way for the county to overcome the current budget crisis is by eliminating employee positions,” Ward said. “If a person needs to be eliminated from our sheriff’s office, then I choose for that person to be me.”
He recommended the citizens and county court appoint a deputy to take over as sheriff and not backfill the deputy position.
Grant County Commissioners Jim Hamsher and Sam Palmer expressed concern about Harney County’s financial position. Hamsher said residents and officials here should “count our blessings.”
Both commissioners expressed complete confidence in Grant County Treasurer Julie Ellison and noted that Grant County’s finances were sound.
Palmer pointed out that Grant and Harney counties have mutual aid agreements, but he doubted Grant County deputies would go to Harney County unless requested. He also noted that inmates in Harney County could be transferred to Grant County, if necessary.
Runnels told the Eagle, while there was room for improvements at the Harney County jail, there were no violations. He also said he knew of no plans to transfer inmates to Grant County, but he appreciated the concern and offers by Grant County officials and residents.
In other Grant County Court news:
• Judy Kerr read a statement to the court requesting that Hamsher be compensated for the extra hours he has spent filling in for County Judge Scott Myers, who has been absent for medical reasons.
She also wanted the official duties of the court members to be updated to address any problems related to court members being unable to work. She said the “position should not have been left dangling” the way it was.
Palmer said he was 100 percent in support of compensating Hamsher, but he didn’t know how that could be accomplished.
Hamsher pointed out, with only three court members and one absent, and with his need to recuse himself from any potential compensation discussion or vote, a quorum would not exist.
Palmer noted that Rob Raschio had agreed to be appointed to the court, if necessary. Raschio served for the remainder of Boyd Britton’s term last year after Britton left.
After noting that Myers was “on the mend” and expected back, Hamsher said county counsel could contact the appropriate state officials about any state laws governing absences by court members.
• Hamsher reported the court had received support calls during the recent flood emergency from staff at Rep. Greg Walden, Sen. Ron Wyden and state Rep. Lynn Findley’s offices.
Grant County residents were asked to send damage reports to the court so they could be added to a funding request that will be sent to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Hamsher noted the Army Corps of Engineers had taken a preliminary look at the Inland Street and Nugget Street bridges in Canyon City to assess damages. He also said he spoke with Canyon City Fire Chief Matt Turner about meeting with other emergency officials in the future to upgrade flood plans for the area.
• A job description for a new human resources position was approved that includes taking over payroll duties from the Grant County clerk, who is paid a stipend to do that work.
A job description for a halftime administrative assistant position was also approved. It’s expected that Laurie Wright will take over human resources and a new hire will take the administrative position. Meanwhile, the commissioners have set up an office in the L Building on East Main Street in John Day.