In his first "State of the County" speech, Multnomah County Chairman Jeff Cogen recently described his government's financial woes.

"Multnomah County is digging deep to change the way we do business to be as efficient as possible," Cogen told the City Club of Portland on Feb. 4. "In the short run, this means doing everything possible to preserve our most critical services."

Yet at a time when the county may be laying off dozens of managers and line staff, a WW examination of hundreds of purchases by elected commissioners and their staffs in 2010 revealed these expenditures of your tax dollars:

  1. Commissioner Judy Shiprack used county money to pay her annual Oregon State Bar dues. The price: $492. (Shiprack now says she’ll pay back the county.)
  1. Commissioner Diane McKeel and her staff spent more than $5,000 traveling to three conferences on human trafficking and more than $1,000 attending City Club of Portland events.
  1. Cogen, the most frugal of the bunch, spent more than $1,200 on new furniture after moving up from being one of four elected commissioners to the county chair’s office.

County Auditor Steve March is in the middle of auditing policies and practices for credit-card use. County rules allow staff and elected officials to use the cards to pay for work-related expenses and travel. March will consider whether the county should have firmer guidelines.

"It's a little bit of a gray area," he says, "particularly when it comes to electeds."

Cogen acknowledged he pays out of his own pocket for many events—such as charity fundraisers and City Club talks—that other commissioners charge to taxpayers. But he declined to criticize his elected colleagues' spending.

"They are focused on what's best for Multnomah County," Cogen says. "Different people can make different calls about what that is, but I know it's all coming from a good place."

The $39,000 spent is small change compared with the total $374 million discretionary county budget. But the commissioners' credit-card spending would be enough to provide free immunizations to about 1,300 school kids.

(Commissioner Loretta Smith is not included, because she didn't take office until January 2011.)