Squeezing even more money from the county budget and finding new revenue sources instead of depending on the federal government will likely be the only way to cure Curry County’s financial woes, agreed four county commissioner candidates at a forum Wednesday night.
The forum, sponsored by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, featured Curry County Board of Commissioners Position 3 candidates Greg Empson and Susan Brown, both of Gold Beach, and Position 2 candidates David Brock Smith of Port Orford and Lucie La Bonté, who lives 12 miles up the Rogue River.
The forum followed closely on the heels of a realtor’s board forum that asked candidates their opinions on Measure 79, which would preempt the state from implementing a real estate transfer tax.
Empson seems most adamant on his stances, saying he will, if elected, make the tough decisions and cut county commissioner pay in half, hire an outside county administrator and renegotiate union contracts to be more in line with pay and benefits in the private sector.
“We must rebuild the county that has stagnated for five years,” he said. “We have a distinct choice. We can continue down the same path, barely keeping our heads above water, or we can take a new path.
“We can be like Newport, Oregon, with their aquarium and progressive leadership, or we can be like Orick, California,” he said. “The choice is ours.”
La Bonté cited her past experience as a county commissioner and bringing the budget back from the brink through austerity and savings. In fiscal year 1994-1995, the county had $10 million in its general fund; 17 years later, it is $9 million, she noted.
“This is a crisis,” she said. “We need to do something right away.”
She said long-term solutions could be obtained through the development of a charter committee to determine how the county can best rule itself.
La Bonté said at the realtor’s forum that the county must work closely with state and national legislators to get funding and develop more enterprise zones to attract business.
Smith said he, too, believes the county needs to go in a different direction, using sustainable resources, pursuing the O&C Trust Conservation and Jobs Act, (see sidebar) create an economic development plan and develop public/private relationships to lure business to the area.
He also believes the county needs to have elected officials pay their fair share of their retirement and health plans, as it is the state pension program that is most bogging down the state’s budget.
Smith said he’d just heard that the counties were now going to be required to pay 45 percent of employees’ retirement into the state fund.
“This is not sustainable,” he said. “When is it going to stop?”
He believes the county should be run like a business, as it, too, has a budget and employees, and cites his experience in the private business sector as the reason he’d be best to fill the commissioner position and bring that about.
Brown noted that cutting the budget won’t solve the financial woes of the county.
“It won’t meet the revenue needs,” she said. “I don’t want to go through insolvency. We can give elections back (to the state). We can give the assessor back. That’s where we’re headed. We can get to bare-bones at the county, but I don’t think anyone wants to do that.”
And the county can’t depend on O&C timber revenue.
“We have to stop depending on the federal government,” Brown said. “Let’s get proactive. Let’s get working on our own future, so if money comes in, it’s a bonus.”
Candidates were asked their opinions about the county’s actions to transfer public and mental health departments to nonprofit entities.
All expressed concern that, if the nonprofits were to fail, the responsibilities of those departments would fall back to the county, likely adding to its fiscal challenges.
Brown indicated her displeasure that county-owned properties were included in those transfers, and that leases – as little as $1 a year – could have kept those in taxpayer hands.
Each candidate said they realize Curry County’s remote nature makes it hard to compete with cities on the I-5 corridor, but that it is still possible to lure business to the area.
Empson cited a firm in Carlsbad, Calif., that does aquaculture – fish, shrimp and oyster farming – and noted that the internet redundancy system being put in place could attract businesses that don’t need a storefront property to conduct work.
“It’s tough in Curry County,” Brown said. “We have some definite issues. We need small, tech-type businesses, green businesses, natural resource businesses.”
None of the candidates indicated support for additional taxes, and all said they support the passage of Measure 79, which would preempt the state from implementing a real estate transfer tax.
Smith said the measure is “another ploy for government to get into our lives,” and La Bonté said she doesn’t support any tax that singles out a specific group.