Curry County commissioners always talk about making everything they do obvious to the public, and now might take it a step further in a resolution outlining exactly where tax revenue will be spent if voters approve a jail ballot measure next month.
It worked for Lane County, after its board of commissioners put a ballot measure to voters asking for a tax increase to fund juvenile services and jail beds, and commissioners here believe it could help provide them with enough “accountability and transparency” to allay trust issues voters have with the board and get the measure approved at the ballot box.
Lane County voters approved the measure 57 to 43 percent; within a month, the jail doubled the number of beds available for inmates.
Curry County leaders hope voters here will follow suit; if they don’t, there is a chance the jail could close or the state take over its operations.
Curry County could be the first to fall off what officials have been calling the “fiscal cliff” and run completely out of money by the end of June 2015. General fund coffers were historically supplied with revenue from the federal government in lieu of timber revenue when the forests were closed in the 1990s to timber activity to protect the federally-endangered spotted owl.
When the federal government announced in 2012 it would no longer subsidize Oregon’s 18 O&C counties, Curry County’s general fund dollars fell precipitously and, despite warnings from elected officials and ballot measures soliciting tax revenue, the shortfall has yet to be filled.
Measure 8-78 asks voters Sept. 16 to approve a property tax increase of 68 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation to pay exclusively for jail operations.
Curry County property owners pay 59.9 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation toward the county’s general fund, garnering it about $1.4 million a year — about $3.5 million short of what that coffer needs to support basic operations.
Repeated attempts to convince voters to increase that tax rate — the second lowest in the state — have failed. Most voters cite the weak economic recovery, fixed incomes and a lack of trust in the board of commissioners as reasons for casting ‘no’ votes at the ballot box.
Jim Lanzerotta of Moss-Adams, the county’s independent auditing firm, suggested Wednesday that the county consider enacting a resolution similar to that of Lane County’s.
That county’s ballot measure asked voters for a five-year, 55-cent per $1,000 assessed valuation property tax increase to maintain a minimum of 255 local jail beds and provide additional counseling, secure treatment and detention services for Lane County youth offenders.
More specifically, a resolution Lane County commissioners passed reads that jail operations shall receive 91 percent of revenue collected from the levy and critical youth services shall receive 9 percent, and audits will be conducted six months into the five-year levy term and annually thereafter.
It further outlined that a special fund would be created for money collected and that money would be spent only on 255 local adult jail beds and eight youth detention and eight treatment beds. The measure also outlined how an average Lane County household would be affected by the tax increase.
That transparency, along with a survey asking voters what services they were willing to fund, were partly attributable to the measure’s passage last May, Lanzerotta said.
“You’re holding yourselves accountable to voters by restricting these funds to jail operations,” Lanzerotta said. “And we’ll do a certain amount of testing to show that those funds are only expended for jail operations.”
Tests to ensure compliance would include auditing the deposits of the revenue collected, ensuring it is properly used in the budget, evaluating how public contracts are awarded and providing financial statements, Lanzerotta said.
“The Lane County resolution was very specific about how the percentage of money would be used and the number of jail beds,” he said. “And additional audits (ensured) compliance with the resolution — an enhanced level of assurance.”
Such assurance, however, comes at a price, he admitted. That is based on how detailed the audit is and the amount of money involved. In Lane County’s case, it was about $15,000; here, it would be closer to $3,500, Lanzerotta said.
The audit could also be expanded to include personnel, materials and services and capital outlays. No decision was made about pursuing such a resolution at Curry County board’s regular meeting Wednesday morning.
“You want to (show) the public that these funds are, indeed, being used for the jail,” he said, “and not being siphoned off to cover other types of county finances.”
County Attorney Jerry Herbage noted the board could enact such a resolution before or after the measure is voted upon next month.
The deadline for new residents to register to vote is Aug. 26.