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Many Northwest Counties Struggle To Provide Basic Services
Author: Doug Nadvornick, Northwest News Network
Posted: October 12, 2010

Across the Northwest, governments at all levels are cutting back because of the economy.

In this next story, we're going to focus specifically on county governments. Many county commissioners say the cuts have gotten so deep they're having to reduce core services: law enforcement, libraries and public health.

A new survey shows most Northwest residents are concerned about that. The survey is a collaboration of the Northwest Health Foundation, the polling firm Davis Hibbitts and Midghall and public radio stations across the Northwest.

Doug Nadvornick reports on how counties are struggling.

 

When Spokane County commissioners cut spending earlier this year, one of their targets was the Geiger Corrections Center.

 

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Graphic by Heidi Nielsen

 

In May, the county laid off more than 40 corrections deputies at Geiger. It closed the kitchen and reduced the support staff.

Sheriff's Lieutenant Mike Rohrscheib says he has six deputies supervising 170 inmates.

Mike Rohrscheib: "We're right at the bare minimum. Even if you're housing 40 inmates and you have a problem, it's hard for six deputies sometimes to handle a fight."

Overall this year, Rohrscheib says Spokane County has cut about 80 corrections jobs.

That's significant because law enforcement is one of the core services provided by county governments across the Northwest.

In a new public radio survey, 77 percent of the respondents said they're concerned about their counties' ability to adequately provide those core services.

Still, pollster Adam Davis says the survey shows most people don't fully understand the severity of the problem.

Adam Davis: "I think over time, as these problems become more evident, you're going to see more and more people saying that they're very concerned about their counties' ability to fund public services."

One of those is Charlotte MacWilliams in Twin Falls, Idaho. She says her family has used programs that faced budget cuts.

Charlotte MacWilliams: "My daughter got into some trouble and they're having a hard time funding things that she's in like the drug courts and things like that."

It's not just law enforcement that counties are struggling to maintain what they have.

In the hard-hit timber country of southwest Oregon, Josephine County has reduced its entire staff from about 700 to 400.

The county has relied on federal money to fund services. But Josephine County Commissioner Dave Toler anticipates those dollars will go away or be phased out.

Dave Toler: "Not only have we made a lot of cuts, but we've also put a lot of programs off of the tax base, if you will, and on user fees."

Toler says his county has handed its public health program to the state of Oregon and privatized the local library system.

In nearby Curry County, voters will decide in November whether to pay more property taxes to fund police services. If that fails, the state may step in and take over local law enforcement.

Gil Riddell from the Association of Oregon Counties says his members are going to decide which services they can afford and which will have to go.

Gil Riddell: "Whether we get to that point where there's actually some dropping off of services that people expect, I don't know. But right now, the way the economy is and the way the public finance system works, it could well happen."

While most Northwest counties are struggling, some have managed to weather the economic storm.

Washington's Tri-Cities have thrived because of the nearly $2 billion in stimulus money being spent to clean up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The area that includes the Idaho National Engineering Lab in southeastern Idaho is also doing well.

But counties across the rest of the region are just hanging on, waiting for an upturn in the economy.

That includes Spokane County, where Lieutenant Mike Rohrscheib expects that his staffing levels will remain stable, at least for now. He's even hoping to hire back some of his laid-off deputies in January.