By JEFF ST. PETER
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has signed a bill initiated by the Port of Brookings Harbor that could allow the Curry County Sheriffs Office to provide more comprehensive law enforcement coverage in South Curry County.
Senate Bill 685 will allow ports in Oregon to levy property taxes for the purpose of funding law enforcement services by cities or counties within port boundaries. It amends state statute ORS 777.430.
SB 685 was sponsored by Sen. Ken Messerle, R-Coos Bay, at the request of the Oregon Ports Group, said Port Manager Russ Crabtree.
Messerles bill passed in the Oregon Senate by a 26-1 vote on April 12. The Oregon House passed the legislation on June 7 by a 41-6 margin, when it was then forwarded to the governor for his signature.
The governors approval of the bill comes after the failure of two levies over the past two years intended to beef up law enforcement in south Curry County.
The levies, proposed by Sheriff Kent Owens, would have allowed the Curry County Sheriffs Office to increase staffing and its presence in the Brookings-Harbor area.
Both levies failed by nearly identical margins, and were primarily defeated by large margins in the north and central parts of Curry County both times they appeared on a ballot.
In May the bond received strong support south of the Chetco River, while voters in Brookings narrowly defeated the measure in all but one county precinct.
Crabtree said the port felt it needed to step up to the plate and fill the gap created by county fiscal restraint and the failure of the bond levies.
We wanted to become a tax conduit, he said Monday, so the people in the south part of the county could have the security they deserve.
We originally had looked to see if we could levy a tax and found out we couldnt. So we pursued the legislation that would amend the statute to give us that authority.
There was a definite need and this was the (port) boards attempt to address that need after the failure of the second bond in May. I think this will give us an opportunity to address a real critical need in Curry County.
Crabtree said if a tax levy is approved by voters in the port district, an intergovernmental agreement would be drawn up between the port and Curry County that would allow the sheriffs office to utilize the tax dollars to provide service in the district.
The port district extends south from Pistol River to the California border, and west from the Curry County border to the Pacific Ocean.
Both the county commission and sheriffs office were consulted on the issue, according to Crabtree, and were supportive.
Owens thinks SB 685 could be an answer to his desire to give the Curry County community better overall law enforcement service and coverage.
From my perspective, and from the basis that we have twice had a levy fail in the north and central parts of the county, this may give us another opportunity, he said Monday.
Im supportive of the ports efforts because I dont believe we are providing adequate service and we want to.
I am eager to put a deputy there to provide 24/7 service. Currently, there are eight hours in the day when we dont have a regular presence in the south county. It can take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour-and-a-half for an officer to respond from the north or central part of the county and arrive on the scene.
Thats just not right. We need to provide 24/7 coverage, and this may be the avenue to do so.
Messerle said he sponsored the legislation because he was aware of the law enforcement situation in Curry County.
The community and port have spent a tremendous amount of money in developing the port into something everyone should be proud of, he said Monday. And its important that they have the necessary security.
With the situation in Curry County (levy failure and sheriffs office cutbacks), I believed this was an important step to take. I had discussed this with Russ (Crabtree) and the (port) board, and saw a definite need to provide security.
The next step in the process, Crabtree said, will be for the port board of commissioners to address the issue of presenting the districts voters with a bond levy issue, possibly this fall.
He said the commissioners would take up the issue during their regular July meeting.
One advantage of having the port district levy a tax will be to lessen the load on a small group of taxpayers, according to Crabtree.
Because of the large geographic (port district) area, he said, the cost will be spread out over a larger segment of the population.
The port will have some expectations of what the law enforcement coverage will be, Crabtree said. Those issues will be addressed in the intergovernmental agreement.
We will want a Curry County Sheriffs Office presence in Harbor, he said. Probably a substation staffed for this specific area and providing 24/7 coverage.
We will be negotiating on the basis to ensure funding for the Curry County Sheriffs Office while guaranteeing a presence of officers in our area.