Providing a better accounting of how local public services are paid for is one of the key goals stemming from a long-range financial plan recently completed for Clatsop County.

On Wednesday the county commissioners discussed a list of recommendations that Financial Consulting Solutions Group provided as part of a comprehensive study of the county's financial status and budgeting policies.

The consultants suggested the county analyze how it pays for various costs and services within its budget and what level of fees to charge for certain services, implement a method for tracking the effectiveness of various county programs, and study other revenue sources such as a gas tax or system development charges.

In response, county staff developed a work plan setting schedules for reviewing the recommendations.

The plan renewed the commissioners' ongoing debate about the best use of the money the county receives each year from timber harvests in the Clatsop State Forest. Specifically, the consultants questioned whether the timber dollars should pay for ongoing expenses such as maintenance and upgrades to the county's computer systems, or whether the various departments should pay for those costs out of their own budgets.

"It's a philosophical question - do we want to subsidize operating expenses with timber money?" County Administrator Scott Derickson said.

The timber money - expected to total about $3.2 million this fiscal year - is transferred into the Special Projects Fund, which was created to fund one-time equipment and property purchases. But the fund also subsidizes the county's general fund in the amount of about $670,000 a year, and also pays for programs like the rental of jail beds in Tillamook and part of the operating costs of the youth detention facility in Warrenton.

The work plan laid out by county staff won't mean any major changes soon. The proposed timeline calls for studies of between one and four years on each of the several recommendations before any possible action by the board.

Commissioner Helen Westbrook said she would be reluctant to make departments cover more costs if it meant they had to make cutbacks elsewhere, especially areas like the Health and Human Services Department.

"I am supportive of reflecting true costs. I am not supportive of reducing services," she said.

The consultants also suggested the county identify which programs and services, such as land-use reviews, should be more self-supported with user fees.

Finance Director Mike Robison noted that the county last performed a comprehensive review of its fees six years ago, and the recommendations from that study were never put in place.

At issue with the fee study is whether services that mostly benefit an individual, such as a planning department development review, should have fees that reflect the total cost of the service, versus services like flu shots for police protection that provide broader benefit to the whole community, Derickson said.

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