Holding cells

Holding cells

Dave Blanchard/OPB

Klamath County was one of several Oregon counties that failed to pass a property tax levy to pay for its cash-strapped law enforcement system. Without more money for the sheriff’s department, the county faced the prospects of laying off deputies or reducing capacity in the jail.

But the county commission developed a workaround by opting to dip into the “working capital” in the budget — a pot of money typically reserved to pay for services before tax dollars arrive in the fall. That means the county will likely have to take out a loan — and pay interest — to stay fiscally afloat until November.

County commissioner Kelly Minty Morris says the chief financial officer and auditors in the county warned that it wasn’t the fiscally responsible way to pay for services, “but in this case we felt like it was an emergency and that public safety needed to be a priority.

The concern of the Klamath County bean-counters is echoed by Cherryl Walker, a commissioner in Josephine County — which has seen its own share of reduced law enforcement. Despite the hardships she sees, Walker says Josephine County would not consider a similar maneuver.

“We don’t view it as an appropriate accounting practice,” Walker said, to spend taxpayer money on paying interest. 

Morris expects Klamath County will end up paying around $20,000 in interest to take a loan out. But the alternative was that “there was a very real possibility that (the sheriff) would have to close at least one pod of the jail.” The jail has three pods, each of which contains about 40-60 beds.

Morris says this is the kind of solution that taxpayers were endorsing when they rejected the levy. She interprets the vote results as county residents saying, “We’re okay with you using these funds that weren’t designated for (law enforcement) … We’d rather have you do that than have us pay more in taxes.”

This year’s funding solution, however, doesn’t help the situation further down the road. “There’s still the very real possibility that next year, or in two years, we have to make the kind of cuts that lead to a closure of one or two pods in our jail.”