|Curry County voters reject public safety tax|
|Written by Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer|
|November 05, 2013 11:06 pm|
Almost 58 percent of Curry County’s 13,251 registered voters cast ballots for four property tax issues Tuesday, approving tax hikes to build a new hospital in Gold Beach and to reinstate Port Orford’s police department.
But tax measure 8-73, the county’s request for a $1.345 per $1,000 assessed valuation to maintain county services at their current levels, was defeated 4,464 to 3,169, a loss of 1,295 votes. In May, when a similar measure was presented to voters, it lost by 839 votes.
A measure asking Gold Beach residents for a 35-cent per $1,000 assessed valuation increase to purchase a new fire truck failed, as well.
Curry County Commissioner chair David Brock Smith plans to open conversations with Gov. John Kitzhaber regarding the economic status of the county after the failure of Measure 8-73 at the ballot boxes yesterday.
“The whole thing went down in flames,” he said, after a long pause. “I understand the hard economic times we’re in, that it’s difficult for citizens to look at their pocketbook and have to write out that extra check. …”
The county has enough money to fund its existing services — already basically cut in half this past year — until June 30.
Of note is that the county is down to four sheriff’s deputies, leaving most of the county without coverage during some parts of the day.
“As unfortunate as it is, we must begin conversations with the governor’s office on what those minimum adequate levels of public safety are, Smith said. “We must keep some level of civility in terms of public safety. We must keep the jail open, we must be able to keep the DA’s office whole so we can prosecute crimes other than just Measure 11 crimes.
“We must keep the juvenile department solid so we can give them the resources to preempt youth from becoming adult criminals. That’s a core service within the county, if not the core service.”
Commissioner David Itzen said he understands why voters rejected the measure, especially with three other tax questions on the ballot.
“They just couldn’t find it within their budget to make the necessary changes,” he said. “I guess we’ll need to do something again.”
That “something,” Itzen said, will likely be another question on the May ballot.
“The mayor (of Brookings) still insists it needs to be around a dollar, but we’re down to basics,” Itzen said. “The $1.34 was as low as we could go. If it fails in May, there’s always the possible implementing (House Bill) 3453. I don’t believe it hurts to begin that discussion. It’s a difficult problem.”
House Bill 3453, approved this summer at the state Legislature, allows the state to take over the duties of counties teetering on the brink of fiscal insolvency and bring their services up to “minimum acceptable” levels. What that means, however, depends on to whom one talks.
Curry County is the first to approach that status, with other O&C land counties lined up behind it.
But having the state “come in” is not as easy as it sounds.
It requires an “invitation” from the county commissioners. Then the governor has to get approval from the leaders in each house — and then a majority vote from each house.
At that point, the state would restaff a county’s offices to levels it deems to be “minimally acceptable,” and charge the county’s residents for that service.
That would, as it currently stands, result in an income tax surcharge rate of up to 22 percent — although the Legislature has agreed, too, to pay for half of that from its emergency reserves. An income tax surcharge is a tax charged to the amount of tax already determined on one’s income.
Although many Curry County residents have expressed displeasure at paying such a surcharge, they aren’t nearly as miffed as other, wealthier counties in the state who are, in essence, paying for the other half of the costs.
“I don’t think it’s in our interest to have the state become involved,” Smith said. “I think they’ll wait, give us one more chance.”
Smith isn’t sure it will come down to that. And he said he’s not disappointed in the voters’ decision, either, as it’s difficult to get correct information out amid the clamor of opponents.
“So many people see Brookings or Gold Beach or Port Orford police department and think public safety is fine,” he said. “The don’t realize that once a criminal’s arrested at Fred (Meyer), it becomes a county problem. The tax pays for him to be incarcerated and prosecuted. And that was what we were asking for: county-wide, community, public safety services.”
He said he’s eager to see what Brown has to offer in the months ahead, as she had opposed previous tax measures saying commissioners need to get more input from citizens before proceeding.
“I look forward to working with her to get the message out,” Smith said. “We’ll look to her for some leadership in that area.
“We have one more shot, in March or May,” Smith added. “We’re already beginning to plan for that eventuality. I could personally favor one more attempt; I’m still thinking about how I’d propose it.”
County Commissioner Susan Brown still insists that commissioners get citizen input to determine the level to which they are willing to fund county services.
“We need to take the lessons learned in Lane, Benton, Polk counties,” she said. “We need to have real discussion, not just at board of commissioner’s meetings. If we just do a top-down approach again, without going to the citizens, it will fail again.”
“With this defeat,” Itzen said, “I believe we must do more to communicate the cause of the ‘revenue gap’ and the extent of our efforts over the past years to economize and reorganize in Curry County government.
“What I’m hearing is that folks accept the need to pass a tax measure to support county law enforcement, it’s just that they — a majority— need something that will better fit within their budgets, and we have not yet found that acceptable fit,” Itzen said.