Curry County commissioners hope a summit meeting with representatives of all the O&C counties later this month in Gold Beach will help them in their mission to find a solution to the fiscal conundrum they face.
The summit, slated for Jan. 24 and part of the following day at the Curry County Fairgrounds, was scheduled after the failure of a second ballot question asking voters to approve a property tax increase to pay for public safety. Without some sort of secure funding, the county will not have money to pay for vital services — a situation that was exacerbated when federal timber revenues were suspended to the 18 Oregon counties.
“This will be an excellent opportunity for the three elected branches of government — county commissioners, district attorneys and sheriffs — to talk about what they have in common rather than what they don’t,” said Eric Schmidt, communications manager for the Association of Oregon Counties. “It’ll let them really get into what the public expects in terms of public safety and make it available to a broader audience: the legislature, governor and congress. It’s is also a chance to talk about, if it is at all possible, consolidation, coordination of services; to provide the services the public expects and needs.”
The meeting, which is open to the public, will begin with an overview of the financial situation facing Curry County, legislation proposed at the federal level that addresses federal land management, and House Bill 3453, approved last summer and which provides mechanisms for the governor to respond to the results of these fiscal crises.
The steps to implement that — if everything went perfectly — could, Schmidt said, coincide perfectly with Curry County’s possible endgame in June.
“And ‘What could happen?’ is one of subjects that could be brought up at summit as well,” he said.
Curry County — believed by most in O&C government circles to be the first in line to fail financially — faces a $3.5 million shortfall in its general fund, and has until the end of the fiscal year, June 30, before it could have to shut its doors.
“This will also help some people in the region that face the same thing, like Josephine County,” Schmidt said. “The dominoes will fall very soon. This is an opportunity to engage the legislators at an earlier stage so they have something to take to the legislature when they meet in February. If we can get the governor’s attention — and I think we have — perhaps we can start this dialogue in earnest this time.”
Impacted the most is the public safety, which needs more money to operate than is in the entire general fund — $2.1 million — in fiscal year 2013-2014.
The county will either have to start laying off its remaining 96 employees, opt to declare a public safety emergency and begin working under the terms of HB 3453 or — as Commissioner David Itzen hopes — find a solution that will tide the county over until a long-term one is found.
A variety of long-term solutions exist — reopening the forests to logging, developing economic plans or increasing property taxes — and all face formidable challenges.
A forest management proposal by U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio is stalled on U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden’s desk while Wyden touts one of his own. There is also the chance Wyden will forego his chairmanship of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee if he is appointed to the Senate Budget Committee — a long-stated goal of his.
Economic development projects are on the board, but take time. And voters have made it clear in two elections that they aren’t willing to pay more taxes for county government.
“It could also be an opportunity to inform the public in Curry County they need to step to the table,” Schmidt said. “Maybe with a little more information they could do it. Otherwise, there will be a solution, and it be one they probably won’t like. But we’re always hopeful voters will finally see the light. That’s a politician’s eternal dream. We can dream.”
Commissioners here will be assisted in the summit meeting by representatives in the governor’s office, the Association of Oregon Counties, the Oregon Sheriffs’ Association and the Oregon District Attorneys Association.
Final agenda items will be announced mid-month.
“It’s a dire situation a lot of people have ignored for too long,” Schmidt said. “I’m not giving up hope. I’m an eternal optimist.”