Voters: Sharpen your No. 2 pencils.
Curry County commissioners Wednesday afternoon agreed on first reading an ordinance that will ask voters this fall to implement a 3 percent sales tax on most goods sold throughout the county.
The date of any election — September or November — has yet to be determined.
The ordinance was originally proposed by the Citizens Committee last year to create a permanent funding source for public safety in the county, which has been deemed to be below even “minimal” standards. It was shelved when the then-commissioner board deemed it was too detailed to appeal to voters.
After voters nixed a property tax increase May 21, commissioners dusted off the ordinance, reexamined it and made a few minor changes to present to the voters this fall.
Commissioners must hold one more public hearing — June 26 — before they can submit it for consideration by the state. In the meantime, the board can amend the ordinance based on comment it receives from the public. They will vote whether to place the ordinance on the ballot after the second hearing.
When it will be posed to voters was among the most contentious issues commissioners grappled with during a work session Wednesday afternoon.
“Unless we change anything, or add more exemptions, this thing is good to go,” said Commissioner David Itzen, noting that the Citizens Committee brought the document from inception to the point it can be submitted to the state. “The work’s been done. I think it’s pretty good.”
But Commissioner Susan Brown urged her colleagues to hold off until November to give them time to finesse the ordinance and educate the public.
“It seems this is getting more and more convoluted,” she said after about an hour of discussions about exemptions, implementations and the looming ballot deadline. “Everyone’s going to have something they want exempted. This is why I’m against a September ballot issue. It’s just not enough time to talk about what this really means.”
Commissioner David Brock Smith said he “insisted” on a September ballot, in part to get revenue into county coffers, but also to avoid having two tax questions on the November ballot. Port Orford city leaders are asking their electorate to reinstate its permanent property tax rate of $1.31 per $1,000 assessed valuation to continue funding police patrol, and county officials would also like to consider posing a countywide lodging tax to voters in the near future.
Often, Smith noted, if voters are faced with two or more tax questions at the same time, all measures are more likely to fail.
Sales tax details
There are plenty of rules to follow — for both county commissioners and merchants — to ensure transparency at the county level and compliance at the cash register.
If the measure is approved, commissioners cannot increase the tax rate without another vote of the public, nor can they delete exemptions — although exemptions can be added.
Under the terms of the ordinance, the document would undergo an annual review by the county budget committee and commissioners to evaluate how well it is working and if changes need to be made. If changes are desired, commissioners must hold public hearings to do so.
Merchants, on the other hand, must register with the county, collect and remit tax proceeds — or face penalties of 10 to 25 percent on overdue receipts.
There are rules outlining fraud, a 5 percent reimbursement for merchants collecting the tax and others addressing late payments.
The original document called for the tax to sunset in five years; later amendments deleted a sunset clause altogether. The draft ordinance now reads that it would be in place for eight years.
It will take about four months to get the system operating, and another six before money starts flowing into county coffers. At that point, it is estimated to raise $5.73 million for public safety in its first full year.
The property tax measure commissioners considered earlier this year had a clause noting that any timber proceeds the county were to receive would subsequently lower the property tax rate.
The original proposed sales tax ordinance gave the budget committee and commissioners in an annual review the option to lower either the sales or property taxes if “excess revenue” were to be received from timber payments. But those two options are no longer included in the ordinance.
Also added to the ordinance is a clause diverting 2 percent of net revenue to a fund to be used exclusively for building maintenance and repair and possibly, at some point, a new jail.
When the ordinance is reviewed by the budget committee and commissioners each year, the two groups can decide if that percentage can be increased.
Carl King of Nesika Beach questioned why big-ticket items were exempt and similar, less expensive items are taxed. Economist and attorney Dan Olson, consulting by telephone, said if vehicles and boats are taxed locally, people are more likely to make those purchases elsewhere, thus hurting local vendors.
Itzen said the committee researched “use” taxes, which would enable the Department of Motor Vehicles to charge a tax to the owner of a vehicle if they purchased it elsewhere but were trying to register it in Curry County.
“It just became more complex,” he said. “And it’s not like we’re trying to protect one group of people.”
Kathy Brayer, one of four citizens at the work session, suggested the commissioners include those people under the poverty level, which in Curry County is currently 17 percent of the population. She and others said they believe that, even with exemptions, the proposed tax is regressive.
“Take those families who are otherwise paying a higher percentage of their income than the (wealthy.) Take them out of the formula to help them continue their modest lifestyle. They should not have to pay taxes in Curry County.”
Olson, saying that “one person’s luxury is another person’s necessity,” noted it would be difficult to identify those who live in poverty, and allowing such an exemption could result in fraud.
“How do you tell?” he said. “I don’t know. Maybe show their food stamp card? But what about poor tourists? It’s very difficult for a county to do.”
Using a food stamp card as identification opens the field for abuse, Olson added.
“I’ve stood in line at the store with my chicken thigh and can of corn,” he related. “And there’s some guy in front of me with steaks and lobster tails, paying for it with his food stamp card. Then he’ll whip out a hundred-dollar bill to buy a case of beer and a carton of cigarettes.”
Commissioners will vote June 26 about the date at which to put the question on a ballot, but Brown was still not convinced.
“I really, really wish I could support this sales tax,” she said. “But I’m still on the fence.”