Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 6.11.09

False Assurances
The dangers of committing money we don’t have
by Rose Wilde

Working on the Lane County Budget Committee taught me how easy it is to get lost in the politics and forget our core mission: to encourage government to address and resolve social problems for the common good. Public health and safety are two of the most important priorities of governments. Maintaining these priorities even in hard times is central to creating the community we would like to have. 

Once we completed our process and made our recommendation, however, the public reaction from some was swift and bitter. Some people are scared for their jobs or their safety, and for a very vocal few, fear has turned to anger. I hope that as a community we can overcome our fear and anger and advocate for the kind of government we are working so hard to build in Lane County.

About those jail beds: The issue is not whether we want to open the module in the county jail but whether we can afford to. I voted not to open the jail at this time because those jail beds cost $3.2 million to fund for a year. This is $6.4 million over two years and up to $16 million over five years. As a budget member, I learned that we must project forward several years to assure stable funding for programs and promote the efficiencies to be gained by experience. 

The state is a major funder of Lane County services in almost every department. Health and Human Services, Department of Children and Families, the Sheriff’s Office and the district attorney all also rely heavily on state funding. All provide critical services. An analysis of the implications of various funding decisions made it clear that the cost of 84 jail beds outweighed every other addition in the proposed budget. Given our current income expectations over the next five years, making a $16 million commitment would be wrong. It would sacrifice so many other programs for such a short-term gain. I also did not want to hire jail staff, only to lay them off later.

What about the decision to fund half-time staff for the county commissioners? The goal there was to build capacity for constituent services. Most other counties provide support staff to assist their commissioners with constituent services. We want to get a speedy response from our commissioner when we have a problem with county processes or government. I have also heard many complaints from county residents about the time it takes for commissioners to return their calls or emails. After a grueling month of evening budget meetings, I am utterly convinced that these elected officials are working their tails off. The new assistants would not be serving the commissioners — they would be serving us. 

We still do not know the full impact of the state budget cuts, but we do know that cuts to state human services programs will be severe, affecting poor working families, people in our community with developmental disabilities, foster children and families, and much more.

I support the commissioners who are withstanding the temptation to placate the community with false assurances of jail beds tomorrow. If we spend money that we do not have, we not only violate our own budget rules, we obligate ourselves to provide services that we may not be able to sustain in the coming years. Will we have the strength to resist cuts to vulnerable populations, like people on the verge of eviction, survivors of violence seeking safety and shelter, the elderly and disabled?

Progressives of Lane County, now is the time to act on your hope and vision. Support our progressive commissioners in their decision to wait on funding certain programs until we know more.

Rose Wilde is an appointed member of the Lane County Budget Committee. She speaks only for herself.