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By Janie Har April 16, 2011

Has Multnomah County had to cut for 11 straight years?

Multnomah County Chairman Jeff Cogen is in the midst of proposing his first real budget, after succeeding Ted Wheeler last year. For the chairman’s first state of the county speech in February, he described the current budget picture as challenging.

"This year we face yet another multimillion-dollar budget deficit … it’s the 11th straight year of cuts at Multnomah County. That’s right: 11 straight years of cuts. Our broken tax system means that in good years we cut services and in bad years we slash them."  (from prepared remarks)

We believe the chairman when he says the county has faced some pretty lean years, especially with two recessions within the last decade.

But did the county really face 11 straight years of cuts? The statement needed checking out.

First, a little background. The county is responsible for some public safety, library, public health and human services. One third of the county’s total budget is the general fund, the bulk of which comes from property taxes, and then business taxes, car rental taxes, and so on. Because property tax rates are capped annually at 3 percent, while inflation, personnel and other costs are more like 4 percent or 5 percent (according to the county), budgeting can be rough going.

Now for the budget numbers, which go back about a decade. The first column lists general fund dollars; it includes the temporary county income tax for fiscal years 2004-06, about $32 million a year, but not the portion that went toward public schools. The figures are unadjusted for inflation. The second column shows ongoing and one-time money, adjusted for inflation, and excluding the temporary income tax. The third column shows general fund dollars adjusted for inflation but excluding one-time money. (The analyst didn’t go all the way back.) All three sets come from the county.

  General fund, unadjusted for inflation Adjusted for inflation, includes ongoing and some one-time dollars Adjusted for inflation, excludes one-time dollars
FY 2003 $304 $342.2 --
FY 2004 $306.2 $310.5 --
FY 2005 $310.1 $304.2 --
FY 2006 $333.4 $306.4 --
FY 2007 $351.7 $354.5 $324.8
FY 2008 $363.6 $358.7 $341.3
FY 2009 $407.6 $381.4 $350.1
FY 2010 $380 $340.1 $335.5
FY 2011 $392 $349.8 $337.2
FY 2012* based on March forecast $407.9 $366.2 (unadjusted for inflation) $352.8 (unadjusted for inflation)

You can see that the numbers have climbed steadily since 2006, no matter which column you pick, with the exception of fiscal year 2010, which saw a significant dip.

How then does the county justify the claim that it’s had 11 straight years of cuts? Well, it depends on how you think of "cuts."

People understand the concept of a pay cut: You have less money to spend or save. The county, though, has more money to spend so it hasn’t faced 11 straight years of that sort of cut.

But the county considers reducing services a cut. It rolls back services if there is a gap between projected ongoing revenue and projected ongoing expenses. Projected expenses means the money needed to maintain current service levels.

So even though the actual dollar amount available for FY 2012 is more than for FY 2011, the county budget people say they are facing cuts, either to direct services or to staff. The March revenue forecast shows a projected $4.4 million gap between revenues and expenditures -- or a difference of a little more than 1 percent -- in the operating budget for fiscal year 2012, which starts July 1.

No doubt the county has had to make cuts over the years, maybe in some department every single year, but Multnomah County also has added programs, has expanded programs and has paid more for raises, health insurance and cost-of-living increases for much of the past decade.

Cogen strenuously disagrees with our definition. He said most people see cuts not in terms of fewer dollars, but fewer services. Having more money does not mean the county avoids service cuts, he argues, mainly because the general cost of doing business goes up. He even pointed to language in stories in The Oregonian that say K-12 schools will get $80 million more over the next two years, but that won’t be enough to avert teacher layoffs or shorter school years. (That’s because educators say they need $1 billion more to cover inflation and student enrollment increases.)  

The bottom line for PolitiFact Oregon? Multnomah County has consistently received more money in the general fund with few exceptions. We don’t think of that as more than a decade of cuts.

We believe Cogen when he says he takes his integrity seriously. And we recognize that the county is restricted by the cap on property taxes. But we can’t agree with the chairman’s statement that the county has had 11 years of cuts. The statement may be accurate, in that there were service cuts, but it leaves out important details, such as the rising dollars in its budget. We rate this Half True.

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Our Sources

Multnomah County, "Chair delivers state of the county address," prepared remarks, Feb. 4, 2011

Multnomah County, "Budget Director’s Message," FY 2011 adopted budget

Multnomah County, "Budget Director’s Message," FY 2010 adopted budget  

Multnomah County, "Budget Manager’s Message," FY 2007 adopted budget

Multnomah County Budget Office, "FY 2012 General Fund 5-Year Forecast Update," March 3, 2011

Interview with and emails from Michael Jaspin, Multnomah County economist, March 31, 2011, April 1, 4, 11, 2011

Interview with Jeff Cogen, April 14, 2011

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Has Multnomah County had to cut for 11 straight years?

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