|County officials explore tax solutions|
|Written by Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer|
|February 15, 2014 10:25 am|
Curry County Sheriff John Bishop has a few ideas he garnered from the Public Safety Summit meeting last month, and thinks they might be plausible — albeit, partial — solutions to the county’s financial woes.
They include a property tax, gas tax and address tax.
The county has found itself with a $3.5 million deficit in its general fund budget since federal tax revenue monies from O&C lands ended in 2012. Voters rejected two property tax increase measures last year, county commissioners nixed the idea of a sales tax, meetings were held, committees were formed and Curry County crept closer to the fiscal abyss.
“I didn’t think we’d come out of there with a magical egg that would solve all our problems,” Bishop told county commissioners Wednesday. “But it got us to thinking. This is a quick and dirty way to get us there as soon as possible. We’re running out of time.”
A palatable tax rate
Bishop is proposing a 68-cent per $1,000 assessed valuation property tax increase, dedicated only to public safety, he believes could start a chain reaction of positive revenue dominos that could dramatically help right the county’s bottom line.
“O&C contributed to the 18 counties going first,” Bishop said of all the state’s counties’ reliance on property taxes. “Other counties are realizing their property tax (base) is running out of money, too. We’re just ahead of the game.”
If voters were to approve a tax increase — which would at the earliest be on the November ballot — the Sheriff’s Office could then work to consolidate its 911 system with that of the city of Brookings, saving more money. Where that would be located has yet to be determined, as both entities in Gold Beach and Brookings feel they have the better facilities to house the system.
And getting the command and control — literally having 911 dispatchers press a button to unlock jail doors at the request of a deputy — out of the dispatch center would save an additional $500,000.
Curry County’s two 911 systems were established in the days when technology couldn’t reach all the valleys and mountaintops in Curry County. Now, two systems are redundant, Bishop said.
“The time has come to look at a consolidated district,” Bishop said. “There are a lot of logistics, a lot of agreements we have to go over, but it can be done. How it looks is an animal we need to discuss. But it can be done.”
Tax gases and doors
Secondly, Bishop proposes to separate his civil and criminal divisions and fund them with a gas tax — a notion that would likely be fought by roadmasters throughout the state and would require a change in the law at the legislative level.
The amount of the tax, and how much it would generate, is unknown.
Visitors, he noted, spend millions of dollars in gasoline purchases in Curry County every year. Strangely, noted Commissioner Susan Brown, the Oregon Department of Transportation has no idea how much gas is purchased in each county, making her and others wonder how the agency knows how much to allocate to the counties’ road funds.
“If the formula’s right,” Bishop said, “We could have California funding most of the road department, without taking it from the road fund. Without affecting the general fund.”
Brown said she’s been following an initiative underway in Klamath County that would, if it gets enough signatures and then wins on the November ballot, assess a tax to every address, or door, in that county.
With 39,000 addresses, that could garner $5.6 million, Brown said. In Curry County, with about 15,000 doors, it could mean $2.1 million to the county coffers — the same amount the county will collect from its property taxes for this year’s budget.
Proponents of the door tax are proposing $144 per door, but it’s unsure if, for example, the owner of an apartment complex would be charged that for his single address, or if each apartment dweller would pay.
“We’ll have to watch how Klamath County does it,” Brown said. “People were always saying (about the property tax), ‘Why is it just the property owners?’ Here it’d be renters, businesses, homeowners — everyone. Everyone uses public safety.”
May 20 primaries
It’s not too late to get anything on the May 20 ballot, said Commissioner David Itzen, who then introduced the idea of an “advisory ballot,” which entails placing questions at the end of the regular ballot that poll citizens about issues that affect them.
Such an advisory ballot could ask citizens if they are amenable to a 68-cent per $1,000 valuation proposal, if they favor a gas tax to help pay for county services and if they believe a “door tax” could be a viable method to secure funding for the county.
Brown said she found the idea of an advisory ballot conjoined with a regular ballot confusing.
“It’s a ballot; you’re usually voting on something,” she said. “We haven’t reached out to the citizens yet.”
“This is exactly what it is — the ultimate way to communicate with citizens,” Itzen said. “It’s merely asking a question whether they’d support us. It’s the best way to communicate with each one. In my mind, it is the highest form of community communication.”
Commissioner David Brock Smith agreed with Itzen, noting that a ballot reaches every eligible voter, while public meetings merely attract a handful.
“We try,” he said. “We have workshops. We have town hall meetings. And we might get one dedicated citizen that tries to stay involved. The problem is getting — and I use my grandmother as an example, here — getting Gladys, who doesn’t go out at night, who stays home during the day, who doesn’t use the Internet, involved. This way, she has the ability, in her own home, to make an educated decision.”