The Citizens Charter Committee is calling for each Curry County commissioner to take a $40,000 pay cut and use the savings to hire a full-time paid administrator to run day-to-day operations of the county.
The charter committee is an offshoot of the Financial Independence Committee, started by Commissioner Susan Brown, who was seeking more public input before pursuing a tax measure. She has since distanced herself from the group to allow them to gather citizen opinion.
“The results of Tuesday’s vote make it clear,” said C-3 spokesman Carl King. “The levy did not fail because citizens are unwilling to spend their money for needed services. This levy failed because citizens don’t trust the Board of Commissioners to spend their money wisely.”
Tuesday’s levy, which failed 58 to 41 percent, passed by small margins in only two of the county’s 27 precincts: in the Langlois area in the north and Harbor Hills to the south.
Commissioner David Itzen laughed when he heard of the committee’s suggestion.
“Here’s a guy who’s lived here a year, a lawyer from Massachusetts, trying to tell people who’ve lived in Curry County for generations what to do,” he said of King. “I kind of think that speaks for itself.”
“I don’t see where us taking pay cut is ‘skin in the game,’” Brown said in response to questions about commissioners taking a personal financial hit like others have in county departments. “I’ve considered it, I don’t have a problem with it, but it would take the three of us doing it for it to be a statement.”
Structure vs revenue
Itzen argues that the charter issue is separate from that of commissioner pay.
He said the committee members are ignorant in county matters, don’t realize commissioners took a pay cut a couple of years ago — and that they are even considering the Hood River County charter as a prototype for one here — as reasons for citizens to ignore the group.
“They don’t understand county government — or the nature of Curry County, for that matter,” Itzen continued. “The people who have lived here awhile will see that for what it is: a cheap political ploy with very little merit behind it.”
He has noted numerous time that a revenue shortage, not the structure of government, is what has driven Curry County into the red.
“Our revenue problem is due to having one of the lowest tax rates in the state and the ending of timber revenue,” Itzen said. “Our problem is a $3.5 million shortage of revenue. The idea they’ve proposed doesn’t make financial sense, much less common sense. It’s not connected to our problem.”
“This is not that people aren’t willing to pay a tax — people voted for the hospital, the people in Port Orford voted for a huge increase,” Brown said. “It’s not that they’re not willing to pay a tax; it’s that they’re not willing to pay a tax to the county. We need to find out why before we can even have another look at a tax.
“We’re in a critical condition,” she added. “I don’t know if disrupting a form of government right now is what should do.”
As with last May’s failed levy, this past week’s county tax levy fared better in the cities than in unincorporated areas of the county. King compared election results for that and the hospital bond levy that asked voters in that district to approve a $10 million levy to build a new facility in Gold Beach.
In Curry County’s three cities, the county levy did best in Gold Beach and worst in Brookings, where there was no competing tax issue.
The important message, King said, is found in comparing the results from voters in unincorporated areas of the county who are within the health district — which overwhelmingly approved funds for a new hospital — with the results from the unincorporated areas outside the health district.
In both areas, the vote for the levy was virtually the same, 41 to 43 percent.
“The levy didn’t fail because it was competing with the hospital for limited funds, and it didn’t fail because the voters aren’t willing to pay for services,” King said. “If the commissioners want to see why the levy failed, they only need to look in the mirror — or better yet, watch the videos of their meetings since January. If they want the next levy to pass, they need to heed the recommendation of their 2011-2012 citizens committee.”
That committee, appointed by commissioners in 2011, recommended on Feb. 1, 2012, that the “Commissioners immediately initiate the process of transitioning the county form of government to a commissioner/administrator form. This would involve the employment of a full-time, professional Chief Administrative Office to manage the day-to-day affairs of the county and allow part-time or volunteer commissioners to focus on policy-making and long-term strategies.”
In the past year, others have examined home rule charters in other counties in Oregon to see if that method of government would better serve Curry County. Commissioner David Itzen, however, has repeatedly pointed out that the type of government is not why the county is experiencing financial problems.
“It’s a revenue problem,” he said Tuesday after the polls closed.
The board of commissioners last fall agreed to appoint its own charter committee to examine such governance; it appointed its most recent member, Janice Scanlon of the Chetco Activity Center in Brookings, Thursday.
That board met for the first time recently, and Wednesday, commissioners received a resignation letter from newly appointed County Charter Committee member Sam Scaffo of Port Orford.
In his resignation letter, Scaffo specifically noted that the county’s fiscal problems have nothing to do with the structure of government, which is what he thought the committee was formed to address.
Itzen doesn’t think a home rule charter — with a paid administrator and an odd number of low-paid or volunteer commissioners — is the best way to go, anyway.
“I think the (charter) committee is working harder to make trouble than it would take to go the right path,” Itzen said. “I’ve seen this happen with other groups: Coos-Curry Electric — they were in trouble when I arrived. Chetco Federal Credit Union had that model; they got in trouble. Brookings-Harbor School District was in deep doo-doo. That model of governance doesn’t give any answers, and could create more problems.”