Bills introduced this week at the state legislature have Curry County commissioners a tad concerned.
State officials realize the federal government isn’t going to bail out timber revenue-dependent counties in Oregon any longer, and are trying to figure out what to do to protect the counties that are falling toward fiscal insolvency, said Commissioner David Brock Smith.
This week, legislators addressed House Bill 2206, which could authorize the state to take over the operations of some county operations if a county were determined by the governor to be in a fiscal emergency.
“We have to sit down and have some informal discussion and sort out what will work,” said Gil Riddell, policy coordinator with the Association of Oregon Counties. “Things like, should there be a trigger if a county can declare emergency, instead of the board of commissioners deciding?”
The state is most interested in countys’ clerks, assessors, treasurer and tax collection offices, as those are the agencies that determine the amount of taxes due, collect them and disburse them to taxing districts – including cities.
If Curry County voters vote down a property tax levy question on May 21, those offices will be ill equipped to perform those duties – if at all.
The ballot measure will ask voters to increase property taxes by $1.84 per $1,000 assessed valuation for those living within cities and $1.97 per $1,000 for those in unincorporated parts of the county. The $4.5 million it would generate would provide a financial “bridge” until county commissioners can put in place a law enforcement district and develop other means by which to generate revenue.
If the measure fails, the county will have to operate on $2.1 million beginning July 1, and likely end up asking the governor to declare a “public safety services emergency” due to “fiscal distress.”
Under HB 2206, a fiscal assistance board would be created that could authorize the state to take over certain services.
Proposed in the bill is that the Secretary of State could assume the duties of the clerk, assessor’s, treasurer’s and tax collection offices – including fully staffing the now-skeletal Curry County departments – and bill the county for those services.
First, Riddell said, the state would take state grant funds from county coffers. Then it would take non-dedicated state revenues such as taxes on cigarettes and liquor sales. Lastly, it would take money from the county’s taxing districts and disburse what’s left to those districts: fire, libraries, cemeteries, the fair, the college and cities, among others.
The issue is far from over, he said.
“The League of Cities is opposed to picking up any of the costs,” Riddell said. “A couple of legislators are concerned about the state all of a sudden being shackled with a new expense. If these aren’t addressed, the bill won’t move.”
Time running out
Smith isn’t so sure, especially since time is running short to find money to shore up Curry County and others in similar financial straits.
“They will ensure their counties will survive,” Smith said. “And it will come at the cities’ expense.”
Smith has been lobbying, seemingly to little avail, to convince city officials in Brookings, Gold Beach and Port Orford to vote for the levy he created. He doesn’t think city officials understand the severity of a situation in which a county fails.
HB 2206 would also allow the secretary of state’s office to provide elections functions, the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs to provide local veterans services, and the Department of Consumer and Business Services to provide building inspections. Most bills would require the local governing board to first request the governor make an emergency designation.
Also in the pipe
Another aspect of HB 2206 would affect the local District Attorney’s office.
That could allow the Attorney General’s office to take over the DA’s office at its discretion. Usually, a DA requests such assistance from the Department of Justice (DOJ) if needed.
“They work cases at our invitation, and we appreciate it,” said District Attorney Everett Dial. “But it’s a departure to have them come in on their own. The funny part is they could come down, do an investigation, not even file anything and bill us. For a county going broke. …”
Dial asks for DOJ advice fairly often, and asks attorneys there to review cases where there might be a conflict of interest, say, if a sheriff’s officer is named in a criminal case. The Department of Justice actually comes to the county once every year or two to work a case. And it conducts appeals cases, which can be lengthy and expensive.
“We’re very thankful,” Dial said. “They’re very helpful. We would go broke if we had to do appeals. We rely on them for lots of stuff. We’d never bad-mouth the DOJ.”
If the DOJ comes to Curry County to investigate a case, the salary of the attorney is not billed to the county. But incidental costs – hotel and transportation for witnesses, or someone providing expert testimony – can add up.
He compared it to the county taking over the operations of a city.
“It’s like the county going into a city and investigating their sewer and saying, ‘Hey, we looked at your sewer. We didn’t do anything about it, but here’s the bill,’” Everett said. “That’s what struck me as odd.”
Yet another proposal, HB 2924, proposed by Rep. Bruce Hanna, R-Roseburg, would allow counties to file for bankruptcy – an unprecedented move in state history.
Southern Oregon’s problems are being battled on the other side of the nation this week, as well, as Oregon Reps. Peter DeFazio, Greg Walden and Kurt Schrader continue to fight their uphill battle in Washington, D.C., to convert 1.5 million acres O&C into a trust and dedicate a portion of timber revenue generated to the affected counties.
Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Max Baucus, D-Mont., have proposed another one-year extension of slightly less than the $105 million the program sent to Oregon counties last fiscal year. An extension would buy time to build support for a more permanent solution.
Another idea of Wyden’s would combine a collection of currently separate revenue-generating programs into one that would underwrite assistance to rural counties. The fund would include timber, onshore and offshore oil and gas leases, mineral extraction and renewable sources of power.
How those battles will pan out in Washington is anyone’s guess, particularly as some have said they are not interested in assisting counties whose citizens won’t first help themselves.
“Curry County is the first one off the cliff,” Smith said. “The parachute has been deployed. We’re just trying to figure out where to land.”