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Curry County crisis: Regain public trust

Members of various law enforcement agencies and counties in Oregon on Friday discuss ways to address fiscal problems threatening to undermine public safety in their regions.
 

Elected leaders from 18 O&C counties now plan to break into smaller groups and meet in a month to better determine how to address their fiscal problems at the regional level, they agreed at a Public Safety Summit meeting last weekend in Gold Beach.

And the first step will likely address how to regain trust in public servants.

 

That was one point on which 150 county commissioners, sheriffs, district attorneys and state officials agreed during a three-day meeting to discuss the basics in getting the public to understand the financial plights faced by county government since federal timber subsidies ended in 2012.

In Curry County, the general fund budget is short $3.5 million, commissioners have spun off various departments to nonprofit organizations and positions throughout county operations have gone unfilled in efforts to save money. And this county will be out of money at the end of June.

This county isn’t alone, noted Steve Kent, facilitator from The Results Group Ltd. of Tucson, Ariz. It’s just the first of Oregon’s counties to be hit.

Success

Other counties, notably Lane, has a small feather of success in its cap.

Officials there last spring were able to convince voters to approve a 55-cent property tax to pay for jail beds — the first property tax increase in 14 failed attempts.

“We have a draft sales tax on the shelf,” said Lane County Commissioner Stewart Faye. “We have a draft of an income tax on the shelf. We explored every different revenue opportunity. But we weren’t going to give up.”

Their success was due to making connections with citizens and finding out exactly how much they were willing to pay for what services.

“We found they were willing to pay between 50 and 75 cents,” Faye said. “And the poll said they would only support jail beds. So we put before the citizens exactly what they said they’d support, and it won 60 to 40 percent.”

The results turned around the statistics from the jail: before voters approved the measure, jail officials were releasing 11 Measure-11 criminals — those accused of the worst crimes — every day. That number is now down to zero.

“It’s a tremendous improvement, but it’s still a third of normal — it doesn’t restore us to anything like normalcy,” said Lane County District Attorney Alex Gardner, adding that to maintain what degree of trust they have earned involves talking with citizens all the time.

Toward the end of the meeting Saturday, people broke into groups based on their careers: sheriffs, county commissioners, district attorneys and citizens, and from there offered suggestions to the other groups.

Among the ideas: Eliminating negativity and polarization, having a common mission and vision, continuing to rank public safety as a high priority, developing a statewide public safety marketing plan, improving the image of those in law enforcement and treating each other as equals.

Kent questioned if there was a perception that sheriffs were valued less than others.

“Oh, yeah,” Bishop said. “With the majority, that’s not the case. But just yesterday, I heard someone say, ‘How do I control my sheriff?’ At what point does someone get it in their head you are to control your sheriff?”

Information disseminated that’s seen as scare tactics are another point of contention among sheriffs’ officers.

“We said, ‘If the levy fails, the jail is going to go away,’” said Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson. “Well, the jail is going away. But, if we didn’t tell the people that, we (are chastised because we) didn’t tell the people. It’s a conundrum.”

The citizens group said they wanted more transparency from county commissioners, particularly with budgets and how money is spent. And they want commissioners to listen.

“Most people don’t necessarily want to be right; they just want to be heard,” Kent said. “The first time you’re ignored and told to shut up, you lose trust.” 

Selling the product

Some ideas the regional group — Bishop thinks a good one would comprise Curry, Coos, Douglas, Klamath, Lake, Josephine and Jackson counties — could pursue include consolidation of departments for economies of scale, creating a law enforcement taxing district and allowing the county to collect a fee for collecting tax revenue for the county’s 40-plus taxing districts.

Other ideas will face larger hurdles, including changing state law to allow lodging taxes to be diverted to the general fund, implementing a gasoline tax for local coffers, creating law enforcement districts, and even revisiting Measures 5 and 50, which seriously limit county government from obtaining revenue.

“If the sheriffs come together, the commissioners come together and the citizens come together, then the legislature and the governor have to listen to us,” Bishop said. “A lot of our issues cannot be done until the legislature changes them. We’re about to go into legislature next week, so maybe we can push a couple things through that would help. The legislature is where the fight needs to take place, to free it up (legislation) for counties around the state to survive.”

Despite criticism that such a meeting should have occurred years ago, Bishop said it probably wouldn’t have been successful.

“We probably would’ve gotten a quarter of the attendance because the effects (of timber subsidies ending) had yet to be felt,” he said. “Even Polk County, five years ago, was fat, dumb and happy. The AOC (Association of Oregon Counties) might not have been involved. We’ve never, ever put all those people together in one location. From that aspect it was a winner.”

Market-drive products

Getting the word out to citizens — and getting buy-in — about what law enforcement needs has proved to be problematic, primarily due to a lack of trust.

That’s where face-to-face education comes in.

“We made promises; we have to keep them,” Gardner said. “If you have the time to explain, people move from being very skeptical to being on board. You have to be out in the field talking with people all the time. We carried the message every time we spoke.”

Faye said elected officials there learned that citizens are the customers, and elected officials should not be telling them what services they want or need to purchase.

Most people think that’s called “marketing,” Kent said. 

“Nobody cares what you’re selling,” he said. “Except when it meets their needs. The market will determine everything — the cost, the color, the size. It’s their money.”

To force something on other people’s reality is product driven, but if the seller can find out what the buyer’s reality is and shape the product to what the buyer wants, that is market driven — and much more successful.

“No product-driven product will ever get adequate, sustainable funding,” Kent said. “That’s an oxymoron.”

People — voters — ultimately want to know what’s in it for them, and the way to determine that is not through demographics, but psychographic research, into their beliefs and desires.

That emotional connection must be made to skeptics. And elections should never been sought unless proponents of a measure are sure of the outcome, otherwise they are merely an expensive way to conduct a poll.

“Don’t ever ask anyone to give something up without giving something in its place,” Kent said. “Instead, say, ‘We’re taking away this and putting it toward that.’ Otherwise people will fill the vacuum with bad news.”

The costs of psychographic research will result in a return in investment, rather than a cost to proponents, he said.

Bishop said he believes Jackson County Commissioner Doug Breidenthal will get together in about 30 days the various entities in the region to discuss issues specific to Southern Oregon and possible solutions.

“This is an historic event,” he said of the meeting. “Never have we seen this many county commissioners, sheriffs, state officials and citizens in one room. It’s a good first step, but the momentum needs to continue.” 

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