Brookings city officials are drawing up “Plan B,” a budget designed to address how the city might be affected if a county tax levy fails in May.
The ballot question, the wording of which will be addressed today (Feb. 13), will ask voters in unincorporated Curry County for a property tax increase of $1.97 per $1,000 assessed valuation and those in cities — Brookings, Gold Beach and Port Orford — for a tax increase of $1.84 per $1,000.
Revenue generated from such a levy would bring in $4.5 million to the county coffers, which will experience a $3 million shortfall next year with the absence of O&C land monies. Add that to the 59-cent per $1,000 existing tax and the total revenue would be $6.6 million — enough to bring the county to 2007-08 service levels that even then were considered barely adequate.
If the May tax levy fails, the county will operate on a $2.1 million budget, which will likely require closing the jail and contracting with Coos County for three inmate beds, reducing Sheriff’s Office deputy numbers to two, and prosecuting only the most serious cases.
Past county commissioner boards have grappled with the knowledge of the impending shortfall, but left it to the current board to address. The tax proposal, introduced by Commissioner David Brock Smith, is different for city residents as, overall, they use fewer county services than do those in unincorporated parts of the county.
Brookings City Council members Monday night said they had reservations about the numbers presented by the county earlier this month, but decided it would be prudent to create an alternate budget to address any impacts it might feel from a failed county government.
City Manager Gary Milliman noted in a report to council that he has numerous questions, both with the numbers presented to the city by the county and how the city would address the repercussions of a tax levy failure.
“What about mandated services?” he said. “Collecting taxes: How will it get done? Will there be delays? Will the city have to pay for the services? Will there be a disruption in services? How will we record documents? What about delays with elections?”
For example, he cited is the county’s GIS mapping system the county handed to its IT department — and two weeks later terminated the employee responsible for updating it.
“We’ve come to rely upon the assessor’s information, but that information has not been updated,” Milliman said. “It’s to the point where (property) ownership changes are not being noted.”
Citizens in unincorporated Curry County are already calling the city planning department with questions because the callers know city employees are familiar with county procedures and regulations.
Of more immediate concern is how the Brookings Police Department will be affected if there are no sheriff’s deputies to patrol the south end of the county.
“I have a number of questions generated by even a cursory review of that document,” Milliman said. “Will Measure 11 crimes (serious felonies) be the only ones prosecuted? With no jail, how are they to transfer prisoners from court or to Coos Bay?”
Like the planning department, the police are already seeing an uptick in the number of mutual aid calls they make to unincorporated areas surrounding the city.
“It is fully hard to describe this dilemma unless you spent time in 911,” he said. “There’s no one to respond when someone calls and says, ‘Send someone to help me.’”
The cost of jail
Councilors also questioned the numbers presented by the county regarding arrests made of people from Brookings.
“That the cities generate 80 percent of the prosecutions strikes me as being misleading,” said Mayor Ron Hedenskog. “The cities only represent 46 percent of the (county) population. Those arrested are generated by Brookings’ law enforcement. The people arrested are from other areas. They are not necessarily Brookings residents.”
With a failed or minimally operating county government, that is likely to increase, unless the city decides to arrest only those involved in major crimes and cite the rest with a ticket.
“Crime is likely to increase adjacent to the city,” Milliman said. “With a decrease in deputies, the (criminals’) perception will be that Curry County is lawless and a good place to harbor their business. And not having a jail as a deterrent would present a major problem for police officers trying to keep control of the streets.”
Milliman said it would be prohibitively expensive for the city to establish its own court to prosecute those arrested, and Councilor Jake Pieper said he’d like to see what the costs would be if police only jailed those legally required to be arrested.
“If you hire 12 more cops, you increase arrests,” he said. “If we chose to have fewer cops, there would fewer arrests. We’ve made the decision to have more officers; we’ll use more jail services, more DA services.”
For example, people who normally would be taken to jail for DUII, a misdemeanor, would merely be issued a citation and released. The same would go for other “minor” crimes such as misdemeanor theft or vandalism.
“There will be fewer prosecutions and an increase in plea bargains,” Milliman said of the restrictions a failed tax levy would place on the DA’s office. “There would be minor or no consequences of acting badly.
“And the same goes for juvenile. And stray dogs,” he added. “There will be a greater response time for crimes: arson, domestic violence. Medical responses in a violent situation when there are no officers available.”
Enlisting volunteers as deputies has worked in some states, Milliman noted. But increasingly, those volunteers have had to comply with new training and standards comparable to paid staff; In California, that has resulted in an 80 percent decrease in the number of volunteers.
Other questions involved the city’s legal responsibility to the community if the sheriff has to turn away prisoners the police have arrested.
Bearing the brunt?
When it comes to the proposed tax levy, city councilors indicated they feel the citizens of Brookings already pay their fair share — and then some.
“City residents are already paying the same (county tax) as those in unincorporated areas,” Milliman said. “That is often missed in conversations.”
A lot of voters don’t have the confidence that quadrupling taxes is going to solve this,” said Councilor Kelly McClain. “That’s just feeding the beast.”
He also said he was disappointed that the county dismissed the Citizens Committee’s 19 recommendations regarding restructuring county government. The county insists it vetted all the ideas.
“It pains me to think the county has not considered acting on some of these,” he said. “There seems like some excellent ways to work the budget.”
“That was a lot of effort by the Citizens Committee and the Blue River Committee and past commissioners,” Milliman said. “There were more than 100 original ideas.”
“There are different forms of county government,” he added, then comparing county commissioner salaries to Brookings’ volunteer city council operated by a city manager.
“You never hear about reducing salaries of the commissioners or even the employees,” said Councilor Bill Hamilton. “It’s amazing to me that no one ever mentions it. What if there was a 10 percent pay cut? Is it a union issue? We’re in a crunch and need to cut wherever we can.”
“They have three commissioners who are not trained and are paid; we have five volunteer councilors,” McClain said. “They could have one county manager run the whole show. Without that change, I don’t think they’ll ever solve the problem. And they’ve known about this for a long time; they’ve seen it coming a mile away.”
And if the county were to fail?
“The situation we’re dealing with has never been addressed or provided for in Oregon,” Milliman said, adding that, by law, municipalities cannot declare bankruptcy as they can in California. “There is a void in state law about what happens when a county becomes fiscally insolvent.”
He said building inspections would likely be conducted out of Coquille; other elements would be addressed by the state.
“But law enforcement? Tax collection?” he said. “These weren’t answered. There is no precedent, no structure for dealing with a fiscal failure.”
The dominos could fall even further, just as the county is starting to address economic development and tourism since the Great Recession.
“It will have an impact on economic development,” Milliman said. “It’s already difficult, and it will be more difficult to recruit new business if people perceive there is a lack of security for their investment, their families, their employees.”
“This isn’t a theoretical issue; this is a serious deal,” Pieper said. “It’s not like we can dig a moat around Brookings, wall up the doors and be good.
“Unfortunately, I think the county commissioners have chosen a route that is status quo, without instituting some of the Citizens Committee suggestions. And unfortunately, I think the levy will probably fail, so we’re going to have to address it.”
“Here we sit, in crisis mode, and Brookings is trying to save the county,” McClain said. “This makes me sick.”