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Residents give input on budget woes.

Byline: Eric Florip The Register-Guard

It's not often that everyday citizens get a direct say in what goes on in local government.

But that's exactly what 50 or so Lane County residents got Wednesday night at the third of five public meetings intended to allow input on how to solve the county's current budget crisis.

Attendees offered several suggestions to four of Lane County's five commissioners - Springfield Commissioner Bill Dwyer couldn't attend because of health problems - which included restoring trust by making local government more open and accountable, along with prioritizing public safety over other programs slated to be cut.

"We wanted to give people a chance to do something different they usually can't do," said management analyst Jennifer Inman, who has helped organize the commissioners' listening tour.

Where most public meetings only allow people to speak in a structured setting under a time limit, Inman said, Wednesday's forum setting with commissioners leading small groups gave them a chance to have one-on-one conversations with their elected officials.

"Our main goal was that people felt like their time was well-spent," she said.

One recurring theme from Wednesday's meeting was the county government's perceived lack of credibility among its citizens. Lane County voters repeatedly have rejected proposed tax increases. And several attendees said it's because citizens want a more long-term, sustainable approach to fixing the budget shortfall.

Commissioners have said the county's budget woes come from two sources. Federal timber aid is set to expire next July, which could leave a $47 million hole in next year's budget that commissioners will likely have to offset with significant cuts. On top of that, the county faces a widening gap between annual revenue and expenditures because of a property tax limit enacted more than a decade ago.

"We are basically struggling with a limitation that Oregon voters voted in," said Commissioner Bill Fleenor.

For some who attended Wednesday's discussions, the possible solutions were simple.

"There's only two things to really look at: You can either reduce the size of county government, or you can increase revenue," said Paul Reed, who participated in Commissioner Faye Stewart's discussion group. "I think we need to do both."

Others put the responsibility more on citizens, saying they shouldn't simply pass the problem off to commissioners to fix, but get more involved in government. And that might involve taking some of the financial burden, despite what voters have decided in the past, said Katie Grenwelge, who said she and her husband, Sid, moved to Lane County from Texas only three weeks ago.

"It's seems like if you want it, you should pay for it," she said.

Despite some differing opinions, nearly all who attended agreed that government should be more accessible, and applauded commissioners' efforts with their listening tour.

County commissioners will hold two additional meetings for public input before drawing up a budget for the next fiscal year, which begins in July. The next is scheduled for Aug. 28 at 7 p.m. in the Cottage Grove Community Center.

"This is our community, and we all need to be working together - particularly in a time of an uncertain financial future," Fleenor said.
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Title Annotation:Government; County commissioners meet with small groups to hear ideas on funding crisis
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 2, 2007
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