Union County will be able to add 1.5 staff positions and maintain all of its programs under a proposed spending plan approved by its budget committee Wednesday.

The committee voted unanimously to recommend that the Union County Board of Commissioners adopt a general fund budget of nearly $12 million for 2019-20. The proposed spending plan is up 6% from the present year’s budget. The county’s financial situation looks bright largely because the Payment in Lieu of Taxes from the federal government was much higher than anticipated, said Shelley Burgess, administrative officer for Union County.

Burgess said the PILT payment for 2018-19 was $500,000 more than the county expected. This means the county will begin the 2019-20 fiscal year with a solid amount of funding on hand.

“This will help our beginning fund balance significantly,” Burgess said.

PILT payments are what counties receive for federal lands they have for which they receive no tax revenue. Burgess anticipates that the PILT payment Union County will receive in 2019-20 will be $1 million.

The spending plan includes funding for adding a halftime position in the Union County District Attorney’s office and a full-time position in the Community Corrections Program, which, according to the county’s website, provides supervision of felony parole, post-prison supervision, and probation offenders and person-to-person misdemeanant offenders.

The half-time position in the Union County District Attorney’s Office will be for someone who will make and catalog audio recordings of grand jury proceedings. Burgess said this position is necessary because recordings of grand jury proceedings in the future will be mandated under a new state law.

The full-time position to be added for the Community Corrections Program will be for a case aide to assist its manager.

Funds are also included in the proposed budget to allow for software upgrades and the replacement of computers in accordance with a developed schedule, Burgess said. Additional funding for the purchases of new software for the Union County Clerk’s office and the Union County Sheriff’s Office is in the budget.

In the recommended budget, 65% is for personnel and 29% is for materials and services.

Union County’s department heads addressed the budget committee on Tuesday and Wednesday and again on Thursday prior to its vote on the budget.

Union County Public Works Director Doug Wright updated the committee on the status of the U.S. Forest Service Rappel base at the Union County/La Grande Airport, which is now almost complete. The county built the base, which will be rented by the U.S. Forest Service, primarily with a $3 million loan from Business Oregon, a state agency that promotes economic development. The loan will be paid off by the county with rent paid by the Forest Service. Each month’s rent payments will be a little more than what each month’s loan payment is.

The base, now in use, is for helicopter rappelling flights. Helicopter rappelling is a means of quickly delivering firefighters to remote areas. Once dispatched, a helicopter and its crew fly to the location of a wildland fire.

Features of the rappel base, a 7,000-square-foot building, include several helipads, which are landing sites for helicopters. It replaced a rappel base at an older building at the airport that had been operating for about two years. A grand opening for the rappel base will be conducted in July.

The status of the Buffalo Peak Golf course in Union was also addressed at the meeting. The county’s goal is to have the golf course in a position where its operating expenses and revenue will be at least breaking even in five years. Burgess said it appeared that the golf course was making significant progress toward reaching this goal until inclement weather hit in late winter and in the spring. This wet weather decreased the number of people playing the golf course, reducing its revenue for 2018-19.

Burgess said small increases in course fees have not had a negative impact on the number of people playing the course while helping to boost revenue.

The Union County Board of Commissioners will later vote on adoption of the budget recommended by the budget committee following a public hearing on the spending plan. The county must adopt a budget before July 1.

Union County Commissioner Paul Anderes said he feels good about the county’s financial outlook. He credits much of it to the county’s department heads, who he said spend money carefully and consistently stay within their budgets.

See complete story in Friday's Observer