By BILL LUNDQUIST, Staff Writer
Candidates for Curry County Commissioner Tuesday night found out what issues interest Brookings voters: budgets and taxes.
The Democratic candidates for Position 1 commissioner, incumbent Rachelle Schaaf and Olive Ball Wooldridge, addressed the issues in the first of three forums sponsored by the Curry County League of Women Voters. Forums were also held Wednesday in Gold Beach and Thursday in Port Orford.
The candidates delivered opening statements, mostly about their qualifications and why they chose to run for public office. They also answered questions posed by both the League of Women Voters and the audience.
Schaaf and Wooldridge addressed the current budget difficulties as the key issue the commission is facing.
"Dwindling financial resources is the Number One issue," Schaaf said. "O&C funds are the single largest revenue source for Curry County."
She said restoring the those funds "is critical to the survival of Curry County."
Schaaf, 34 from Gold Beach, was appointed to the county commission June 14, 2001 and is currently the chairwoman. Over the past several weeks, Schaaf and her fellow commissioners have struggled with a $700,000 budget deficit created by reduced state and federal funds.
The commission finally erased most of the deficit by cutting county public health services. That action, which has yet to be finalized, raised other issues for both the current commissioners and the candidates.
Wooldridge, whose self-proclaimed grass roots campaign is her first in Curry County, opposed cutting county health services. She said she preferred re-organizing county staff and services to save money.
"A balanced budget is just the beginning. You have to have solid leadership to build upon," Wooldridge said.
She added she didn't think it was a good idea to "lop off" county public health in order to balance the budget. She said rearranging some county departments could save resources and funds.
"I'm very interested in re-organization," Wooldridge said. "Some counties have positions that aren't elected positions such as surveyors and sheriffs."
She also noted, "The prosperity of Curry County must not depend on the using' of our natural resources. Our view-sheds must be kept pristine and our resources preserved. We must allow our land use laws and goals to perpetuate and protect us. Our government, made just by a spirit of civil behavior, must be user friendly and in it's management style more carefully fit our needs, producing a wealth not available by ordinances alone."
Likewise, Schaaf said it was her love of Curry County and her experience in education, budgeting and finance that led her to get involved in county government. A county resident since 1997, Schaaf has taught at the University of Pittsburgh and Southwestern Oregon Community College. More recently, she worked on the County Commission of Children and Families.
She said her experience on the Children and Families commission is something that made cutting health services very difficult. She also said her experience with the current budget process has made it painfully obvious it will be impossible for the commission to balance future budgets without tax increases.
"No. I'm sorry, I wish we could," she said. "I've been dancing and romancing this budget for the past two months trying to make things work."
Schaaf compared the county's financial crisis to that of a family that has lost some income. When that happens, she said, you have to figure out what's important and keep the basics and do without the luxuries.
"Can Curry County solve problems without cutting or raising taxes?," she asked the audience. "They can't do otherwise. They have to solve a financial crisis every year because they have to come up with a balanced budget.
"If we want sufficient funds, we're going to have to put money in the coffers."
Wooldridge, who was publicly elected to advisory positions with the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and the Alpine County Planning Group, agreed with her opponent about the future of tax hikes.
"Our county income is completely dependent upon our property values," she said. "The county general fund is only improved by increased property values."
She said it would take extra taxes to repair roads and other infrastructure to raise property values in Curry County.
Wooldridge also said her experience in appointed advisory positions with the San Diego Board of Supervisors, Curry County Board of Commissioners and the Wedderburn Sanitary District Board was instrumental in her decision to run for commissioner.
Schaaf explained that her experience in the current budget process makes her a logical choice to remain as a county commissioner. She said she has had to make tough decisions on the budget process and has worked with fellow commissioners in developing strategies for long-range financial plans for economic development.
"We have had to eliminate some county jobs to balance the budget. That's a reality," Schaaf said.
She added that even though candidates and commissioners face the tough questions about tax hikes, it's ultimately not in their hands.
"Commissioners don't raise taxes, people do," she said.
Both agreed the commission needs to be more business and user friendly. And they both said they have the qualifications to handle the job.
"This will be the best election money can't buy," Wooldridge said of her campaign which will feature no advertising. "I can't lose because my primary purpose is to broaden discussion and have more than one name on the ballot, and talk about the things most politicians don't want to talk about."
"I have considerable on-the-job experience," Schaaf said. "I have the most budgetting experience. I have the most knowledge of the Curry County system. I am fiscally capable.
"One must have leadership skills. You have to be able to inspire people. I have those things."