Curry County Commissioner Susan Brown was hit with a barrage of questions regarding county government at a recent homebuilders’ meeting — everything from charter forms of government to her distrust of government in general.
The meeting was a far cry from a similar meeting at which Commissioner David Brock Smith met with a contentious audience as he outlined the rationale behind the property tax levy he helped craft and his attempt to get homebuilders’ support for it.
The Curry County Homebuilders Association “resoundingly” came out against the five-year levy, which will be on the May 21 ballot and asks citizens to raise taxes $1.84 per $1,000 assessed valuation for those in cities and $1.97 per $1,000 for those in rural areas.
President Dave Frazier said last month, “the overwhelming consensus was unfavorable towards any new tax, or any increase in existing taxes. The group believes the correction period we are experiencing has not been felt sufficiently enough to ensure that future budgets or spending by the county will reflect our belief in having a smaller government that is essential in the long run, regardless of whether or not there is an improvement in the economy.”
Brown was the only commissioner to vote against putting the levy on the ballot, preferring instead a permanent tax to support a law enforcement district.
“Will I vote for it?” she said to a question posed to her. “Personally? As a citizen and taxpayer? No.”
She outlined the reasons: the disparity of the tax increases between urban and rural property owners — 38 percent of county services used by those living in cities and a mere 7 percent difference between the two tax levy amounts — its temporary status of five years; the fact that the sheriff’s office budget would still be included in the general fund; and the $4.5 million revenue it would generate when the department currently operates on a $3.6 million budget.
Brown believes there are other options — lots of them. And she invited those in attendance to submit their ideas.
She believes her idea to create a permanent law enforcement district and a levy to support it won’t take the one to two years to put in place as she’s been told by Sheriff John Bishop, who also supports the idea.
And she realizes that, if the May 21 levy fails and a law enforcement levy is placed on the ballot in November and is approved, there must be ways to fund operations in the five-month gap before the county will see revenue for the new district from that levy.
The homebuilders were more amenable to listening to Brown’s anti-tax feelings and her idea for the creation of a law enforcement district than they were to Smith’s attempt to win them over last month. But some were still a little skeptical.
“The homebuilders came out with a resounding ‘no’ (for the ballot levy),” said homebuilders association president Dave Frazier. “And I’ll probably put my foot in my mouth, but they’ll probably say no in November, too. The general consensus is that we really need a major change.”
That’s what Brown wants, she explained.
She said she’s spoken to law enforcement in the county’s three cities and they think an agreement between cities and the county to back each other up to achieve full coverage in the county could work.
But at the core of it all, she believes the county has — despite its layoffs and spinoffs — still got too much fat on the bone.
“A lot of expense-cutting can still be done,” she said. “It’s amazing the stuff I’ve found. It’s a lot of little stuff, but it all adds up.”
She cited the cancellation of GIS contracts between the county and cities that used to bring revenue to the general fund. She said there are departments manned by, say, three employees — of which two are in higher-paying management positions.
“We haven’t even addressed in-house spending,” she said. “It’s tough, but we have do some housecleaning at our own level before we ask taxpayers to pony up money.”
She cited a recent incident in which two new office chairs arrived — bearing a $2,000 bill.
“That’s unbelievable,” she said. “Two chairs, at $1,000 apiece. I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my god; how am I going to explain that to the taxpayers — and justify it?’ And they (commissioners) want you to pay a tax? There’s got to be a way to do better. People let (things like) this slide by. They say you can’t do anything about it. I say, ‘Why not?’”
The commissioners are working to form a committee where citizens can, again, submit their ideas about belt-tightening.
“I’ve had people call and suggest putting in a county lottery,” she said. “Reallocate existing taxes. It’s not my job to say those aren’t good ideas. If it comes up, it needs to be on the table. Throw it out there. We might come up with something that’s like, ‘Wow.’”
She doesn’t discount the idea of creating a charter form of government, which could include a county manager rather than three commissioners. There are nine Oregon counties with charter forms of government, and a committee could learn from their successes and failures.
Perhaps commissioners could serve part-time as a policy-making board and hire a county administrator, she said.
Brown offered the idea of asking the state to approve a county-wide lodging tax — she estimates it would bring in about $750,000 — to be temporarily dedicated to the general fund and then reverted to tourism endeavors, as is required by state law.
Also, she would like the planning department to be more streamlined, making it easier for builders to do their jobs.