County commissioners are no closer to solving Curry County’s fiscal problems after meeting this week to discuss possible alternatives to the property tax levy that failed May 21 and a sales tax they put on a back burner late last month.
Commissioners approved a $55 million budget just last week, of which $2.1 million is in the “discretionary” spending pot of the general fund. That is a shortfall of some $3 million needed to run county operations at even less-than-adequate standards, and commissioners have been working for months to find a long-term solution to the financial quandary.
“People recognize there are financial issues in Curry County,” said Commissioner Susan Brown. “But they all see the solution differently — from shutting government down to implementing a property tax.”
Although a few new ideas were presented — a variation of the old property tax, a homesteading exemption, business licenses and a county-wide lodging tax — commissioners were back to the same points they haven’t been able to agree upon in the past six months.
Brown wants a permanent solution and more input from citizens, Commissioner David Brock Smith has another split-rate property tax levy that might be more palatable to voters and Commissioner David Itzen now thinks the 3-percent sales tax should be abandoned.
There is no unanimity on if a tax should be made permanent immediately, or if a temporary tax should be requested to give commissioners time to craft a permanent solution.
They’re now even talking about a May 2014 ballot question, as the deadline to get anything on a September ballot has passed, and a November election would give them just over a month to meet state filing deadlines — but more time to convince voters to tax themselves.
An additional challenge now facing the commissioners is that Port Orford has a property tax levy renewal question on its ballot to pay for its police department — and the Curry General Hospital recently announced they hope to ask voters this November to approve $10 million general obligation bond to provide matching funds to build a new hospital.
Smith has noted that, if more than one tax question appears on one ballot, the chances of both failing increases dramatically.
Itzen initially supported the sales tax idea, saying the work has been done and it’s ready to be presented to voters.
“But it can only be effected if there is support for it, and I don’t see any support for it,” he said. “The organizations are definitely against it; the chamber in Brookings said if we pursue it, they’ll actively oppose it. It’s not a course of action I’d propose we move forward on, unless we see a large portion of the community come forward to push it. I don’t see that.”
Smith presented new figures that assume 911 and dispatch systems are consolidated in the county and their financing removed from the general fund. With those in their own arena, he said a property tax of $1.50 per $1,000 assessed valuation for those living in unincorporated Curry County and 93 cents per $1,000 for those in the cities might be more amenable to voters. Like the other ideas presented, that revenue would be dedicated to public safety.
Operation of the 911 system, however — even with its economy of scale by consolidating the Gold Beach and Brookings centers — would cost a separate 20 cents per $1,000.
Smith has been criticized for the figures he presented to develop the property tax rate this spring — notably the percentage of services used by city denizens compared with those who live in unincorporated Curry County.
“There has been criticism saying it’s not fair,” Smith said of the figures. “It’s defensible. There is no question.”
Those numbers aren’t set in stone.
By manipulating scenarios — say, adding two deputies here, consolidating departments there — the tax rates Smith proposed could range from $1.50 and 93 cents per $1,000, to $1.65 per $1,000 and $1.54 per $1,000 depending on where someone lives. Those figures could be averaged together, as well, and commissioners could present a proposal for a tax increase of $1.60 per $1,000 from all.
Having a question for an increased property tax and a separate levy for 911, Brown countered, puts the budget right back where the commissioners started in January when they began trying to figure out the financial conundrum.
“This is just a replay of what we already did,” she said. You take 911 out and add 20 cents; we’re right back where we were. Nothing has changed.”
Neither does it take into account the $300,000-plus the county now must reimburse the road department for the $950,000 it borrowed to meet this year’s budget.
Instead, Brown proposed they work under the status quo — where staffing is right now — and under the constraints of the 2013-2014 budget the board just passed, all the while working out a permanent solution.
“I don’t want to see a (tax) increase if we’re just passing a temporary levy,” she said. “It didn’t work last time. We need to look at what the people are concerned about — not what you want, not what I want, not what the sheriff wants. We need to get on the ball as commissioners and make something permanent.”
Smith said a tax increase from the current 59 cents per $1,000 to whatever permanent rate they later agree upon would likely be too big a leap for voters to swallow without a smaller tax in the interim.
The board could not agree if it was better to provide funds for six, 10 or 12 deputies for Sheriff John Bishop in a tax proposal. They plan to invite him to their next regular meeting July 10 to answer more questions.
“You may be quibbling over the number of deputies,” said County Attorney Jerry Herbage, “but you can give (the sheriff) a pot of money; he has a certain ability to take the money you give him and allocate it the way he sees best.”
Commissioners agreed that, if a temporary tax is proposed, it might stand a better chance if it sunsets in a shorter period of time than the property tax proposal, which would have lasted five years.
“I would caution against a two-year levy because these numbers (county services use by cities and urban areas) are based on last year’s data, where cities have cops and the county doesn’t,” Smith said. “The numbers will change when the county’s deputy numbers have increased. We need at least three years just to get the new data so we’d know what rates to set.”
Brown disagreed, saying Bishop’s lack of luck in filling six empty positions right now won’t change, because applicants know they could be laid off if voters don’t approve a permanent tax levy after a temporary one sunsets.
“We need to show the people we’re committed to this by giving ourselves two years to find another funding source,” Brown said. “We need a solid funding package moving forward. Anything longer and they won’t believe us.”
The entire process is getting even more muddied, Itzen pointed out to his colleagues.
“We agree about the 911 consolidation and a TLT (transient lodging tax),” But I’ve heard initiatives, charters, lotteries, recalls — I don’t know what all else is out there. I don’t know how the clerk’s office is going to handle it.”
Representatives of that office already plan to ask commissioners for help at their next meeting July 10.