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Governor offers plan to rescue counties Print E-mail
Written by Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer   
June 05, 2013 10:04 am

Gov. John Kitzhaber could call out the National Guard – even though he deems it an “unpalatable” option – to enforce the law in counties that failed to approve tax increases to keep intact their public safety agencies.

Curry and Josephine counties’ voters both rejected measures May 21 that would have increased property taxes to fund public safety.

“He was asked by the Rules Committee members about other options if House Bill 3453 doesn’t go through,” said Curry County Commissioner David Brock Smith, who testified on various legislative proposals Monday. “And he said, ‘I could either increase funding … to state police or call in the National Guard. Those are my only two options.’”

Greg Wolf, intergovernmental and regional solutions director for the governor, said neither option is preferable – or likely.

Kitzhaber’s announcement was at a meeting to discuss House Bill 3453, which would allow the governor to restructure county government to address shortfalls in law enforcement since federal funding to timber counties ended last year.

The original bill would have counties pay for those services from tax revenue generated from special districts.

An amendment on the table proposes to allow the governor to put in place an income tax surcharge to pay for half of the costs, with the state picking up the rest of the tab.

“We cannot sit idly by and watch these counties slip into a potentially grave situation in regards to public safety,” Kitzhaber said. “The tools I have available now are pretty much mobilizing the Natural Guard.”

He said he would first ask legislators for money for state police to increase patrols in troubled areas before he would call the Guard. He added that although unpalatable, the state has a “moral obligation” to provide public safety to its citizens.

Curry County commissioners hope the state will hold off on any action in light of the fact they are discussing new possible tax measures for a September special election.

HB 3453 was gaining momentum locally after an amendment was presented that would require the governor to have approval from local elected officials before they do anything, and implement an income tax surcharge to pay for those services instead of taking them from taxes collected by the county for special districts.

Commissioner David Brock Smith, who testified at the meeting on HB 3453 and two others, suggested consolidating “duplicate services,” notably 911 services that are based in Gold Beach and Brookings; and ensuring the sovereignty and constitutional authority of the sheriff and the Board of county commissioners in any decision.

By consolidating 911 services, the county would save about $500,000, Smith said, so any income tax surcharge the state would impose could be reduced.

Smith told legislators he believes Curry County residents could accept an income tax increase as long as didn’t exceed 6 or 7 percent. Currently, the average worker in Oregon pays 9.9 percent income tax, the highest in the nation.

Other ideas presented Monday included allowing the counties to take some money from school districts, allocating lottery funds to law enforcement and having the state contract with counties for additional patrols on the roads.

Smith spoke out against a House Joint Resolution that would involve merging Curry with either Josephine or Coos counties, saying current property taxes would not, even combined, generate enough money to fund law enforcement for all.

Animosity between urban and rural citizens is apparent in the comment section following an Oregonian newspaper article about the issue. Name-calling aside, residents in urban areas wrote that people in the southwest Oregon shouldn’t be awaiting handouts, while those here said they’d work if they could find it and don’t want outsiders meddling in their business. 

“Folks up in there are paying $2, $3, $4 per $1,000 (assessed valuation) – they don’t have any sympathy for us at 59 cents (per $1,000),” Smith said. “They will fight tooth and nail against any subsidies from the state for us. They don’t want their state tax dollars used to subsidize counties that don’t want to raise their rates beyond 59 cents. We have to take care of our own problems.”

If HB 3453 is approved by the House, it must then go through Senate hearings, as well. That must be done by the end of the legislative session, June 31.

“I think this bill has a degree of importance,” Wolf said. “It won’t be one of those things that gets left behind for lack of interest. There’s a lot of interest on both sides of the issue.” 

 

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