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County no closer to solving cash crisis

Tick-tock; tick-tock.

Day by day, month after month, the county coffers are dwindling.

There’s a property tax measure on the September ballot that would benefit jail operations. County commissioners continue to work on the “smaller” economic development pieces. And House Bill 3453, which would allow the state to restructure county government here, still lurks in the corner as a safety net.

But the money will be gone — all of it — July 1, 2015, if not a week or two earlier. 

And commissioners are no closer to even a temporary solution to the county’s fiscal woes.

“There is no short answer,” said Commissioner David Brock Smith. 

  “I tried to provide the best temporary solution to keep public safety services for our citizens. I have put myself out there and done everything I can do to try to keep the county from hitting the wall. I worked my rear off to pass HB 3453 for a safety net.

“When I was chair, I created a funding solution my first month in office,” he added, of the first failed split-levy property tax measure. “I’m disappointed and frustrated. I took this job to fix the county.”

Commissioner David Itzen has succeeded in bringing to the state’s attention to dire situation of public services — law enforcement — in Curry County when he hosted the Public Safety Summit in Gold Beach. He’s also working on a forest collaborative to better manage the forest and improve local economic conditions. He helped get ReHome Oregon here, to get people into better housing. He’s enticed a pyrolysis plant to the county; it is seeking grants to get underway.

Smith is working to bring wind power to northern Curry County. He hopes to be able to raise telecommunications fees on cell phones to bring money in.

Commissioner Susan Brown has explored a lodging tax for hotels in unincorporated Curry County, and has spent much of the last year talking with citizens to find out what they want in terms of county government.

They have spun off entire county departments to nonprofits, let positions go unfilled and froze pay, until this month.

“Those are all very little steps,” Itzen admitted. “And they’re all far out (on the timeline).”

“Curry County is in a very unique position,” Smith said. “The seriousness of our financial instability really is something I’ve been trying to do turn into a positive. The only remedy allowed by law is through a property tax.”

Property taxes

That’s where the board has found itself divided. Itzen and Smith — Brown voted against both — have put two property tax measures on ballots; both failed. A third comes up Sept. 16, asking voters for a three-year property tax increase of 68 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation. It would generate $1.6 million to be used solely by the jail, thus freeing up $1.2 million currently used for the jail to be used for other public safety services.

It won’t, however, address the other floundering departments and their dire financial situations.

Currently, the county is operating on what County Accountant Gary Short termed the “burn the county down” option, which entails spending what little the county has in its remaining coffers to get by until next summer.

Commissioners could declare a fiscal emergency and ask the state to come in and restructure government throughout the county.

They could put another measure on next May’s ballot.

But that’s about it.

So now what?

“I have no idea,” Smith said. “I have been as blunt and realistic as I can (to) bring funding solutions to keep services going.”

Of immediate concern is public safety.

“Citizens have a false sense of security because they haven’t seen any decline in service,” Smith said, noting that when revenue dries up, county officials will have to triage services. “If cities think they’re insulated from increased crime, they’re not. Our citizens have a false sense of security. There’s crime in Josephine County and Del Norte that we have been insulated from. We’re losing that invisible wall quicker than I thought we would.”

Brown, however, feels differently.

“I don’t see the doom and gloom that everyone else does,” she said. “We’re funded until July (2015). As far as I’m concerned, we have a little bit of wiggle room left.”

She doesn’t hold much hope for the jail measure, but notes that the survey she recently completed will discern what kind of tax voters are willing to pay for — and a rate — and that could can be put on a ballot in May.

“We need to move forward with whatever we can get that has the support of citizens — a lodging tax, a gas tax, use of the road funds — whatever,” she said. “We could also borrow against whatever (might) pass in May.”

Consolidation of 911 services, or more fairly distributing state funds to the district and defense attorneys are examples — admittedly, little ones — that help fill the fiscal shortfall.

“We need to look at all the little things and all the big things,” she said. “But the most important thing is to take the time to see what the citizens are willing to support, outside any ballot measure. I’m confident that, with the proper engagement, proper education, the time (we have) to put something on the May ballot, we’ll be OK.”

The jail levy, however, is only one of many pieces in the fiscal puzzle, they all note.

“The rest of the infrastructure — county counsel, the DA, all these things that (wouldn’t be) supported (by the jail levy). … What then?” Brown queried. “Our county departments don’t work in silos. They work hand-in-hand. If we can’t support the infrastructure, it (the jail measure) is not going to help.”

She doesn’t think it will pass, anyway.

“It’s not likely,” Brown said. “People are feeling pretty darn angry right now. It’s the wrong timing for putting another levy on the ballot before reaching out to the citizens to see what they’re willing to support.”

Smith and Itzen have noted that a lack of unity on the board plays a part in each measure’s failure.

“Why should they expect unity on the board if they keep doing the same thing?” Brown countered, of her voting against ballot measures. “The people have spoken a hundred times. And they (Smith and Itzen) keep doing the same thing: a property measure on the ballot.”

Itzen, on the other hand, believes the ballot issue has a high degree of success. 

“If we’re successful, then we might come back with another mechanism, or combination of mechanisms, that will give us the revenues we need to sustain this operation at this level,” he said. 

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