County Commissioner Susan Brown presented to the Brookings City Council Monday a multi-tiered plan she believes can make the county solvent in the three years commissioners have until their terms end.
“I’ve taken this to all the public service officials and no one’s thrown me out of their office,” she said. “Some thought it might work. It’s reasonable to taxpayers, we’d get more patrol deputies and it’s short-term.”
Curry County and other O&C counties are in dire fiscal shape since federal timber subsidies have decreased over the years. Many counties, including Curry, failed to develop a way to recoup those losses in intervening years, putting them on the brink of insolvency.
Brown’s plan would involve posing to voters in November a property tax increase of $1.15 per $1,000 assessed valuation that would sunset in five years.
Also the tax could be later rolled into a permanent means of funding public safety in Curry County.
The $1.15 tax rate is estimated to bring $2.5 million to the general fund.
Brown noted that, in discussions with citizens, the common denominator for the May 21 tax levy failure was due to voters’ unwillingness to pay for patrol. So by removing patrol from the general fund, designating the new tax revenue specifically to the jail, DA and juvenile services, the county could pay for patrol with money in the general fund that normally paid for the sheriff’s office work.
That general fund money could pay up to 10 Sheriff’s patrol deputies, Brown said. Bishop currently has four. County services would remain at current levels.
In the meantime, Brown would like to see the county pursue a 9-percent countywide transient occupancy tax (TOT) that could both pay back the road fund from which the county borrowed $950,000 to pay for public safety this year and to shore up existing county services.
Currently, Brookings and Gold Beach charge 6 percent to people staying in city hotels, RV parks and other lodging facilities. Port Orford assesses 7 percent. Thirty percent of revenue garnered within Gold Beach and Port Orford goes to their general funds and 70 percent, as required by state law, goes to tourism funding efforts.
That law was put in place after Brookings had already established its own TOT tax. There, 25 percent goes to tourism efforts and 75 percent to the city.
Brown proposes that the general fund pay for patrol as is until the TOT is established.
A countywide TOT tax of 9 percent — less than that in Del Norte County in California and Grants Pass in Josephine County — would generate $600,000 to $700,000 a year, Brown said.
She would also like county officials to ask Gov. John Kitzhaber to temporarily allow the county to divert a larger percentage of TOT revenue to its general fund budget to get the county solvent again.
“If we go to the governor with a plan — something more than passing a levy — and we have a plan with steps to get there, it could be a possibility,” she said. “It never hurts to ask. They’re looking for the counties to help themselves, to come up with creative ideas. It might be amenable.”
Business license fees could also be established to help the building department’s bottom line.
In three years, she said, the $1.15 tax levy could be made permanent for a public safety special district. The only increases taxpayers would see would be those limited by state law to 3 percent in assessed valuations. A vote of the public would be required to increase the tax rate itself.
Within that public safety district, residents of the unincorporated areas could determine if they want more patrol deputies. If they believe 10 positions are needed to provide public safety, that would cost 80 cents per $1,000; if 12 are desired, it would be about 98 cents per $1,000, Brown said.
Bishop has said he needs a minimum of 12 patrol deputies to provide coverage in Curry County 24/7. As it is, there are times no deputies are on duty.
A communications district would be created for dispatch and 911 and could be funded with a 15-cent special district tax, Brown said.
“We really worked hard to keep the numbers down and keep services to a minimum,” she said, noting that TOT and business tax revenue would grow as the county does.
Councilors generally agreed the plan sounded plausible.
“This stands a better chance of surviving than anything else I’ve seen,” said Councilor Bill Hamilton. “We’ve got to pay. It’s down to that.”
“I think it’s a well-thought-out plan,” said Kelly McClain. “There’s definitely some logic to it. We can start moving forward. We all would like to get out of this quagmire.”
But he and Councilor Jake Pieper said they were uncomfortable with the appearance of a “shell game,” in which revenue from the new tax levy — specifically worded not to fund patrol — would “free up” money that previously paid for “core public safety” to fund patrol.
“I don’t see it as ‘kind of’ a shell game,” Pieper said. “I see it as a shell game. You’re putting money in the right pocket and taking money from the left and then putting money from the right into the left. ... That’s going to be a real issue to overcome.”
Council member Brent Hodges agreed, pointing out that county officials have major trust issues to overcome before voters will approve a tax of any sort.
“One commissioner said if the measure didn’t pass on May 21, they’d have to lay off 65 (county) employees on May 22,” he noted. “That didn’t happen. I don’t know of anyone who was laid off. Comments like that make people not trust government.
“If there had been layoffs on May 22, people would’ve been, ‘Holy cow! We’re in dire straits!’” he added. “When it doesn’t, they think we’re doing fine.”
Pieper said he was also concerned that anything implemented by the current commission could be undone by future boards.
“Voters will have to hold new commissioners to the fire — and not give up,” Brown said.
“It’s huge to ask taxpayers to put their foot forward and start paying,” Pieper said. “Government hasn’t proven it can do it.”
Brown agreed, saying everything presented to voters has to be presented truthfully.
“When we go out to the public, we say, ‘Here’s the budget, here’s what we have, here’s what we can do, here’s what we need,’” she said. “We don’t need scare tactics. Give them the facts and do what’s right. That’s how you build trust. Each time you do it right, it’s going to get easier.
“I don’t want to look someone in the eye and lie; I can’t do that.”