CLACKAMAS, Ore. — As May quickly slips away toward June, it's budget crunch time for many public agencies that mark their fiscal new year on July 1. In Clackamas County, the run-up to that vital deadline has been marked by friction between the county sheriff and the board of commissioners.
Last week, Sheriff Angela Brandenburg circulated a letter to the public, warning that her agency faces a $5 million budget cut at the hands of commissioners. And according to her, it's happening because the county is desperate to find $15 million for the annual payment on a new county courthouse.
The courthouse in question is expected to open in 2025 and will cost, all told, around $313 million.
Clackamas County commissioners historically support a strong and well-funded law enforcement arm, which is probably why it struck a nerve when the sheriff drew up her own budget and proposed cutting 34 positions in order to absorb the $5 million cut.
Commissioner Paul Savas did not seem to appreciate Brandenburg's proposal to cut positions or her subsequent letter.
"A lot of constituents who called me, knocked on my door, stopped by my house, were asking me questions and I think there's a lot of bad information out there right now," Savas said. "And I don't think that's a good thing. I think that's going to confuse things here today. So I'm only going to make a couple comments on this today. Number one we, all my colleagues have said for weeks, months that we are not gonna cut any positions. If need be, we will line-item guarantee every item funded in the sheriff's department. We made that perfectly clear."
Most of the jobs slated for elimination under Brandenburg's proposed budget are currently vacant, she said. And it was far preferable to the alternative proposed by commissioners, according to the sheriff.
"For me, there are some serious issues with it and I don't believe it's sustainable," she said. "And so I'm going to propose or bring to the table for the budget committee to consider my own budget. And that would eliminate positions, unfortunately. Alternatively they could also fund me and not defund us."
The Clackamas County budget battle is particularly of interest because of the powers involved. The county sheriff is independently elected, so the board has no direct power over her. However, she relies on commissioners to allocate the funds she needs to run her department.
In late April, the county held a budget hearing. During the session, budget manager Sandra Montoya explained that Clackamas County would change the way it charges departments for internal services like human resources, and that's part of what has the sheriff so fired up.
"I know that lots of people would say that the timing is because of the courthouse. I have to tell you, honestly … it would have happened anyways, whether the courthouse happened or not," Montoya said. "Just like we had to implement a new budget system whether COVID happened or not. Its just, life has to continue and our plans have to move forward regardless of anything else that is happening. However, I will say that from a fortune perspective, it is fortuitous that we have this cost allocation change coming in a year when we were looking for additional funding for the courthouse."
Board chair Tootie Smith also pointed out that the system needed to be changed in order to meet federal requirements.
But the sheriff said that the county wants to use these changes to the budget system in order to force her into pulling from a special enhanced law enforcement district tax, created by a voter-approved levy, intended to provide deputies for rural areas of the county.
Sheriff Brandenburg said that when she campaigned in support of the levy, she promised voters it would only be used for law enforcement. Commissioners are making her break that promise, she said.
"We are a law and order county and the people expect services," Brandenburg told KGW. "They expect us to respond when they call for help. And to take money from this funding source, that the voters entrusted me with, to do things that were not something the voters intended is not something that I'm going to stand for. And that's why I refused to go along with the county's budget."
Typically, Brandenburg said, she's entrusted with creating her own budget. Now, for the first time, it's being dictated to her.
"Well frankly, I was stunned when I got that message," she said. "It has never happened before. And my responsibility is to the voters right? And so, ah, it was difficult."
Brandenburg said she intends to fight in order to protect the voter's tax money, and she thinks some serious questions should be asked about Clackamas County's plans for the new courthouse.
"Maybe we can't afford it," Brandenburg said. "The decision was made at the county level to move forward by the board of county commissioners to do this. And we were told that $15 million would have to be cut out of the general fund funding for all of our offices. That was their funding plan."
Right now, it seems unlikely that this budget fight will end in a friendly conclusion. Monday saw the addition of a few more verbal barbs, including one from county chair Tootie Smith.
"The sheriff had an opportunity to post her budget on open gov just like all the other budgets if she knew that she was going to have an alternative budget," Smith said. "I would suggest the sheriff should probably follow the rules of budget law just like everybody else is."
The board talked Monday about the budget for the enhanced law enforcement district. On Tuesday, they are set to discuss the entire sheriff's office budget.
Sheriff Brandenburg has asked members of the public to rally to her defense and let county commissioners know how they feel about their budget.
Commissioner Ben West on Friday called the sheriff's letter "specious and cynical or at best ill-informed." He said he's looking forward to Tuesday's budget discussion "where all will be revealed."