Curry County Commissioner Susan Brown said Wednesday morning she no longer has problems with a proposed three-year, $1.35 property tax increase proposed by her fellow board members — but that afternoon, she voted against it, again saying November is too early.
Commissioners voted 2-1 to approve the ballot title and wording before Friday’s deadline to submit it to the clerk’s office.
“After all the input you put into this — you wanted your language put into this — and then you vote ‘no’ is. … Wow,” said Commissioner David Brock Smith. “Pretty amazing. My concern is, you never commit on anything.”
The proposed measure of $1.3450 per $1,000 assessed valuation would bring $3.264 million to county general fund coffers the first year. Currently, Curry County property owners pay 59 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation, the second lowest — and then, only by a penny — in the state of Oregon.
Since a similar property tax increase measure failed in May, commissioners have discussed even more ways to cut expenses, crafted economic development ideas and massaged fiscal numbers to reduce the tax rate to present to voters.
The bulk of the funds the measure would generate would be dedicated to public safety, including the jail, juvenile services and the Sheriff’s and District Attorney’s offices.
Wednesday, commissioners refined language, line by line, for the November ballot question, mostly to comply with state laws regarding any semblance of advocacy for the question.
They eliminated included “minimum” and “adequate” services that can mean different things to people. The added language to require an annual independent audit of revenue to ensure money was distributed to its proper departments.
They also eliminated a part that explained why the money is needed and instead opted with language explaining where it would be spent.
All those revisions were Brown’s suggestions.
The May 21 tax levy asked for $1.97 per $1,000 assessed valuation for those living in unincorporated Curry County and $.184 for those who live in cities. It failed 56 to 44 percent. One reason the board cites in the measure’s failure was a lack of unity on commissioners’ part in posing the question to voters.
Brown has voted against every tax proposal presented in county commissioner meetings.
“We must be on the same page,” Commissioner David Brock Smith said Wednesday before discussion on the ballot title began. “We must be a unified board.”
“I actually don’t have a problem with $1.35,” Brown said Wednesday morning. “My biggest problem lies elsewhere.”
She believes more citizen input is needed, and that it’s too early to put another measure to the vote.
Itzen and Smith, however, were not pleased that she voted against the proposal.
“To me, it’s not responsible as a leader to say on one hand you’re in favor of it and it should be advanced and on the other hand say you’re against it,” Itzen said. “You can’t have it both ways. You have to get off the fence and take a position on these issues. You have to, as a leader, make a decision. At some point you have to risk a position.”
Until this week, commissioners were divided on the tax rate, with Brown adamant that $1.15 per $1,000 would keep services as they stand today, and Smith and Commissioner David Itzen touting the $1.35 per $1,000 that would also include maintenance of the 911 communications towers and some desperately-needed building repairs.
Brown said she doesn’t like that commissioners here developed a tax rate figure and presented it to the voters, rather than finding out what voters want and crafting a figure from there.
That was done in Lane County, Brown noted, and its mill levy passed.
“The process was very telling about how it worked,” she said. “They took two years to make the levy and get people on board. They went to the citizens and asked what they wanted — they were guaranteed success.
“I have been preaching this since March,” she said Thursday. “We need to go to citizens, get input from the citizens, engage them, go to the public and talk about numbers and what they mean, what works, what doesn’t work, what they’re willing to fund and how much. That’s what we should have done, not, ‘This is what we need, and you’re going to pay for it.’”
And that takes time — something they no longer have, Smith and Itzen said.
“We’ve been having this conversation for over two decades,” Smith said, recalling that then-commissioner Rocky McVay tried to educate voters about soon-to-end timber subsidies and was not reelected to a third term on the board. “I’m concerned about any delay, and I think citizens understand (the issues).”
“If citizens understood, this would’ve passed some time ago,” Brown responded. “That’s telling in itself.”
“My concern is that, back in February, when we were putting the May ballot together, she wanted to wait until November,” Smith said. “So, here we are going for a November ballot, and she doesn’t support that because she wants to hold off until May.”
Smith said he and Itzen are glad Brown at least supported the tax rate.
“Commissioner Brown said she’s supportive of the $1.35,” Smith said. “I couldn’t be happier about that.”
“I think we do have unity (now),” Itzen said. “She went on record as being in favor of $1.35. That was a big change.”
“I told them I was comfortable with $1.35,” Brown said. “It wouldn’t be the numbers I would choose, but I can live with it. I am not comfortable with a November ballot.”
She disagrees with the feeling there’s unification on the board.
“There’s been a lack of unity since January 7,” Brown said. “Nothing has changed. This board has been dysfunctional for quite some time, and I’m tired of it. I’m tired of the jabs, the disrespect; they’re not promoting any kind of responsible leadership in this office or for the county.”
Itzen outlined other reasons the tax measure failed: because the split-rate was complex, it was “significantly higher” than what they’re now proposing, and the Brookings City Council opposed it.
He added that, in conversations with most of that city’s council, he believes Brookings won’t come out in opposition of the measure this time.
“This is not an easy time in our economic environment in Curry County,” Itzen said. “We’ve been left behind (the nation’s recovery); we’re still recovering. But it appears all three of us could support this … with a relative degree of enthusiasm.”
Competing with the property tax increase measure is a 27-cent per $1,000 requested by Gold Beach to buy a new fire truck and a $1.90 per $1,000 question by the city of Port Orford to renew its law enforcement tax that expires this year. The Curry Health Network is also considering a $10 million bond to place on the November ballot, but its paperwork submission deadline isn’t until Sept. 5.
Smith has repeatedly noted that the more tax questions on any given ballot increases the odds of failure.
If the measure does not receive voter approval — the last one only lost by 839 votes — it is possible the state could opt to take over critical county operations and pass the costs on to income tax-payers. That possibility, created under the terms of House Bill 3453 this summer, requires numerous steps at the state level to reach.
None of the commissioners favor having to declare a fiscal emergency and have the state take over county operations, instead preferring to address the problem at a local level.
Itzen fears that might be their last alternative if a ballot question isn’t on the November ballot — and if voters reject it.
“Waiting until November is a sucker’s bet,” Itzen said. “All that does is put us at a point where we have no alternatives, and I believe Commissioner Brown would once again come out against it (a ballot issue in May).
“What would be the point of waiting until May?” he added. “We basically are out of money in June or July. That’s too close to the edge of the cliff to gamble your future on. It’s irresponsible. If she says she doesn’t want it on (the ballot) in November, but said she’d support the board’s decision, that would be OK. But if she’s against it, she’s irresponsible and should be held to account for it by the voters. It’s time to call her on it.
“We’ve reached the end of the line,” Itzen said. “We have to pass this deal.”