GOLD BEACH – Curry County commissioners want to hear from the four candidates for commissioner who opposed a tax increase in the primary elections after one changed his mind on Wednesday and called for a tax measure on the November general election ballot.
“I do believe the commissioners need to put a measure on the ballot in November,” David Brock Smith said. “I am not in favor of a sales tax, but if you do, it would beat nothing.”
Smith said he doesn’t see adequate public safety in the county now.
He said he would like to see three options on the ballot – a sales tax, a property tax or a combination.
In the May primary election, incumbents Bill Waddle and George Rhodes, who had both called for a tax increase to keep the county from going under, were defeated and will not appear on the November ballot. Instead, Smith and former Commissioner Lucie LaBonté will vie for the seat Rhodes now holds and Susan Brown and Greg Empson will be in the runoff for Waddle’s seat.
Waddle and Rhodes said they believed they were defeated because the other candidates opposed any kind of tax increase.
Since then, Empson in June changed his tune.
Before the election, commissioners were working on a proposed 3 percent sales tax measure that would have exempted a long list of items, including groceries and prescription drugs. The state Department of Revenue and Oregon Legislative Revenue Officer Paul D. Warner has predicted that the 3 percent sales tax, even with a long list of exemptions, would raise $5.04 million a year for Curry County.
“The measure as written ... is extremely confusing,” Empson told the commissioners. “I believe a better idea would have been an across the board 1 percent sales tax with no exemptions.”
Empson said he would support that 1 percent tax if certain budget cuts were made first.
The commissioners have approved a county general fund budget for the current fiscal year by taking $350,000 from the vehicle replacement fund, $700,000 from the County Road fund and $450,000 from the county’s working capital to keep the county operational until July 1, 2013. But officials say the county cannot function after that without another source of revenue.
Recently, Congress approved a final $1 million timber payment to the county, expected to arrive at the end of the current year, but commissioners say that even with that and the $2.1 million the county raises in property taxes and fees, would leave the county well short of the $5 million needed annual for general fund departments, such as sheriff, district attorney and juvenile department.
Waddle said that the timber money is 39 percent of what the county received in 2008.
“That hurts us more than it helps,” he said. “I defy any person to look at their own household budget and tell me they can get along with 27 percent of what they did four years ago and make it work.”
He said he believes it would be futile to put anything on the ballot in November.
“But you’re just kicking the can down the road,” Waddle said.
He said there are new commissioners coming in January.
“It takes time to get something on the ballot,” Waddle said.
He said the candidates should not sit silent and say nothing. They should suggest something – a property tax, sales tax or hotel tax.
Rhodes said he wants to question the four remaining candidates for commissioner, two of whom will take office in January.
“This board can sit here and talk about what we want to do, but we must realize there is going to be a change in leadership,” Rhodes said. “If they don’t have the guts to say that’s what we need to do, the county’s going to be in a bind. I don’t support putting anything on the ballot at this point.”
Wendy Willis of National Policy Consensus Center has met with Commission Chair David Itzen to discuss using Oregon’s Kitchen Table as a mechanism to get county residents thinking about the county budget and revenue options.
“It’s very clear they are interested in seeing if this is successful in Curry County and if it could work in other counties,” Itzen said. “It’s clear there’s an interest if this process will be successful in Curry County.”
Willis was working toward a grant to fund the project and expects to know whether it is available by the next commission meeting, Aug. 25.
Itzen said the project would cost about $40,000, with the Oregon Community Foundation providing $25,000 and the National Policy Consensus Center another $15,000 from other sources.
But she recommends that any election be delayed until next March, saying there isn’t enough time to get information to voters to make a difference by the general election.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Waddle and Rhodes were skeptical of the Kitchen Table concept.
Waddle says he doesn’t see much help coming for Curry County from the Legislature.
“Our own legislators, Rep. Wayne Krieger and Sen. Jeff Kruse, tell us what their colleagues say and think about our situation,” Waddle said.
He said that legislators all say that Curry County has one of the two lowest taxes for the general fund in the state – .59 per $1,000 assessed value compared to the state average of $2.82. And it’s time for county residents to help themselves.