Oakridge Residents Outraged at City’s Financial Mistake

OAKRIDGE, Ore. —  The Oakridge City Administrator announced the cuts needed to fix a budget he says he thought was in the black; turns out, it’s deep in the red.

The City of Oakridge’s checkbook doesn’t match with the bank. That means at least six city employees will have to be let go. That’s 25 percent of the city’s staff.

City Administrator Gordon Zimmerman announced that the city is missing $420,000.  Zimmerman says an investigation will take time to find out why, but his assurances didn’t satisfy angry residents. In fact, some even resorted to yelling profanities.

He says at the beginning of this last fiscal year, July 2010, the city had $980,000 in cash and reserves. By the end of the year, June 30th, 2011, the city had $180,000.

The adopted budget for the 2010-2011 fiscal year was slated to take the reserves down to around $600,000. That means $420,000 is gone.

“When I found out what had happened, it was like somebody kicked me in the face,” said Oakridge City Council President Jerry Shorey.

“We all kind of felt like we were slammed in the gut,” added council member Rayetta Clark.

That was the reaction from Oakridge City Council members when they found out through the media last Friday that the city’s bank account was $420,000 below projections.

“When I write a check, I check with the statement to make sure there’s money in there. I don’t go back later and find it’s ‘oops?'” said one resident, who spoke before Zimmerman and the council.

“It just don’t make sense,” said Gene Tomlin, Oakridge resident.

That statement was echoed again and again. Why is their taxpayer money missing?

“Since I don’t know what caused the problem, I can’t answer that,” said Zimmerman.

Zimmerman chalked up a few possible theories though. Maybe computer reports understated revenues and expenses. Plus, the weak economy has significantly cut into utility revenue — about $200,000 — maybe that’s a cause. He also says people may be taking longer to pay their bills.

But he did sweep aside the assumption of many here; that criminal activity may have taken place.

“When you can’t present a book of audits, it leaves you all suspect,” said Tomlin.

There will be an audit of city spending over the last two years, but Zimmerman says it will be an internal one. That statement sent a wave of boos through the auditorium.

“You got a lot of people in here that are angry and I don’t think an internal audit is going to do this. You need the state in here to do it right,” said one resident.

In the meantime, six employees will be laid off by July 31st. They include the deputy police chief, one police officer, a dispatcher, an animal control officer, a community center manager and a utility worker.

“You got a dog catcher and you’re laying him off? Might as well, he doesn’t do a damn thing anyway,” said one resident.

But as angry as people were inside, some left feeling their voices were not only heard, but that the council would take them to heart.

“I’ve got faith in them. I think they will try to get to the bottom of this, and I think they will accomplish something,” said Tomlin.

For a quick budget fix, the city will get help from a financial institution to make payroll until tax revenues are received. In the meantime, Zimmerman says he plans to bring in auditors, software experts, and he wants to get a performance review of the utility billing system.

Zimmerman suggested hiking water rates to help ends meet, but council member Ernie Baszler said no to that at least until the auditing is complete. Zimmerman also said he’s exploring the idea of early retirements in order to reduce labor costs.

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