The dispute between Curry County Commissioners and Brookings city officials over how to bolster the county’s revenue stream could boil over into two separate tax levies — one on the May ballot, another on the November ballot.
Brookings City Council will consider several proposals during its regular Monday meeting – some of which could, if implemented, drastically change how the county runs its government.
Topping the list is a proposal in which the city will ask the county to place a different property tax levy on the November ballot.
Also, the city council will review how some county departments can be integrated with those in the city, as well as a ballot proposal to change the county’s form of government to Home Rule.
The council will discuss a motion drafted by Brookings City Manager Gary Milliman asking county commissioners to consider placing on the November ballot a three-year property tax levy similar to the one on the May 21 ballot, but with a wider tax levy gap in cost to in-city and rural property owners.
The May 21 ballot question asks voters to approve a tax levy of $1.84 per $1,000 assessed valuation for those living in cities and $1.97 for those in unincorporated Curry County.
Milliman is proposing the county consider a November tax levy, with a property tax increase of 92 cents per $1,000 for those in the cities and $1.93 for those living in rural areas.
“There are alternatives, and one is to bring the levy up in November in the event this thing goes down in May,” said Brookings Mayor Ron Hedenskog. “We need to pick up the pieces and put together a Plan B.”
Looming over all this is House Bill 3453, which, if passed by the Oregon Legislature, would allow the state to take over county operations, staff the county to levels it deems adequate, force the county and cities to work together — and bill the citizens, through an income tax, for the cost of doing so.
The implementation of such a bill is based on the failure of the May 21 levy, which, if that happened, would leave the county with only $2.1 million in property tax revenue — not nearly enough to maintain many basic services.
Several citizens and officials have wondered if this is the city’s way of offering something more enticing to voters so they will reject the May levy.
“That was not our intent,” Milliman said.
The reason, he said, was that the county commissioners developed the levy tax amounts — and how it would be split between city and county property owners — without city input.
“We received the (county’s analysis) the day they voted on it — and we didn’t get it from them. We got it from the other cities,” Milliman said.
The county’s analysis was created by County Commissioner David Brock Smith after consultations with county department heads.
“If they’d conferred with us, we could have come up with a formula everyone agreed with,” Milliman said. “That didn’t happen. If there had been the opportunity to review all the materials and communicate with county officials prior to them placing the measure on the May ballot, if we had a measure that addressed the issues the city has raised, perhaps we could have had a ballot measure the city could support.
“Now we’re in position where we need to respond and do our own analysis and propose something to voters based on that. If that results in voters not voting for the measure in May, that’s just a consequence.”
Hedenskog said, “There are tremendous scare tactics and intimidation taking place. They called it ‘strong-arming’ at (Thursday’s) Port Orford City Council meeting. They’re saying Henny Penny is coming out of the commissioner’s office. ‘The governor’s coming in and he’s going to be a dictator.’”
“They didn’t listen to anybody,” he continued. “They just throw this (levy question) out there and say, ‘If it doesn’t pass, the sky’s going to fall.’ If they’d just talked with us, we could have worked this out as a community. The sky is not going to fall.”
County Commissioner David Itzen said the city’s November ballot levy proposal might look like preemptive action, but he thinks it’s an issue of control.
“They don’t want House Bill 3453 to come in,” he said of the bill that would put the state in charge of county operations and bill residents for the cost. “They are attempting to weaken the county.”
“The city of Brookings is trying to diffuse the efforts of the county commission,” he said. “We have a public safety crisis now. We have no way to fund the jail, 911, keep the DA whole. It is disgusting to me they are using the entire county’s public safety crisis for their political gain.”
City of Brookings Attorney Marcia Rice is also drafting a measure for the November countywide ballot that would change the form of county government to a Home Rule charter.
The charter would depend on a paid administrator and a board of volunteer commissioners, who would serve without compensation or benefits but would be reimbursed for miles, meals and lodging.
A Home Rule ballot measure failed when nearly 75 percent of the voters rejected it in 2008.
While the city has no authority to place a Home Rule measure on the ballot, it plans to make the document available to any citizens who might be interested in gathering the necessary signatures to get it on the November ballot.
“We have had inquiries,” Milliman said.
Citizens would have to gather 617 signatures to get an initiative on the ballot, said County Supervisor of Elections Shelley Denney.
The two actions are proposed as a solution to achieve financial stability, Milliman wrote, and came out of the Curry County Citizens Committee, which drafted 19 ideas to avoid the fiscal disaster the county now faces. Milliman served on that committee and wrote its report.
“Only one of the recommendations that has been pursued is the placement of a property tax levy on the May ballot,” Milliman wrote in his report. “With the passage of time and the threat of state legislation that would negatively impact city government, the city may wish to become more involved in providing leadership in this matter.”
County Commissioner Susan Brown said she is in favor of the Home Rule charter proposal.
“We have a group that’s already talking about things like that,” she said, “and the templates are out there. I’m in favor of it. I’m ready to do what I can and look at that.”
Itzen said the rationale for a Home Rule charter doesn’t make sense. He feels it’s a diversionary tactic.
“It’s a tactic to take away the attention from the problem at hand … We’re losing our best people because of the uncertainty of the county’s (situation) because we won’t shoulder the burden we should shoulder,” Itzen said. “What system of government we have is irrelevant to the problems we have today.
“Those against the (May) levy will devise these diversions,” he added. “They see this nuclear option (HB 3453) and the county will probably be empowered by this legislation. We’d be working with the governor’s office and force (intergovernmental) operations and the county will be in charge. They don’t want that.”
Commissioner David Brock Smith said any November ballot question — whether put forth by the county or cities — will be too late.
“We wouldn’t see the money for another year,” he said. “We do not have the finances to fund Curry County for another 12 months. We just don’t have it.”
Currently the county operates as a general law county. A home rule, or charter, form of government entails providing an administrator or manager and elected county commissioners who create policy and long-term plans.
Home Rule counties — there are nine in Oregon — create and operate under their own charter.
Milliman provided in his report a comparison of county commissioner pay with seven counties of similar population, five of which operate under home rule. The average compensation for the chair is $14,867 and for commissioners, $11,885, plus retirement benefits.
Curry County commissioners currently make $60,000 a year, not including $1,000 a month for health care benefits and $560 a month for retirement benefits. The PERS benefits can’t be collected until a county employee has worked for the county for five years.
Smith doesn’t like that Brookings’ officials used Hood River County’s charter as a template for its proposal, saying that Hood River County has had numerous problems with it.
But Brown said Curry County could learn from the successes and mistakes made by other counties with home rule.
“(Home rule) doesn’t mean it’ll work for Curry County, but we could see if it’d work,” Brown said. It still needs to be government of the people.”
The issue is not new to Curry County.
In 2008, citizens argued whether having five commissioners under a Home Rule charter would save money.
The cost of an administrator was discussed at length in 2008, which then was said to be $102,000 — $145,500 with benefits. Today, Itzen said, base pay would be between $150,000 and $200,000.
“That charter wasn’t the best-crafted charter,” Brown said. “A charter should be a governing document. That one had too many details — nothing to do with governance structure of the county and too much micromanagement. I think that’s why it was defeated.”
The city council will discuss these issues and others at its meeting at 7 p.m. March 25 at City Hall, 898 Elk Drive.