It’s been a yo-yo kind of week for Curry County Commissioner David Brock Smith.
Last week, he was elated when he learned the county’s Public Safety Levy had received bipartisan support from the Republican and Democrat central committees — something many people said they’d never seen before.
“Never in the history of the county can I remember this type of mutual support — although never in our history has Curry County been in this dire fiscal position,” said Smith, who compiled the data to create the tax measure. “This is unheard of.”
Then Monday, the Brookings City Council unanimously rejected a resolution of support for the property tax increase.
The levy, with will appear on the ballot as Measure 8-71, comes before the voters May 21 and asks for an increase in property taxes. If it is approved, those living in unincorporated Curry County would see an increase of $1.97 per $1,000 assessed value on their tax bill; those living within city limits would pay $1.84 per $1,000 value.
The tax, expected to generate $4.5 million for the public safety and provide time to create a law enforcement taxing district, would sunset in five years – a timeline that concerns Mayor Ron Hedenskog.
“I’ve heard different opinions about how long it takes to form a district,” Hedenskog said at Monday’s City Council meeting. “One commissioner (Susan Brown) has said it’ll take than a year, I’ve heard 18 months, I’ve heard 24 months, you’ve said 18 to 24 months. Why are you asking for a 60-month bridge?”
The longer timeline, however, would also give time for commissioners to implement long-term economic development solutions for the county, commissioners argued.
The projects include a housing initiative to repair or replace aging manufactured housing units throughout the county and a forest health collaborative to reduce fire danger and provide timber jobs in the forest.
“The rest of the state and other counties are watching what is happening in Curry County,” Smith said. “Solving problems is going to take years, and we have to be able to support the basic functions of government in the meantime.”
As other city officials in the county have done, the Brookings council pointed out that the 13-cent difference between in-city and unincorporated area tax rate increases isn’t wide enough, even though the figures are based on the percentage of county services used by city residents compared to those living outside city limits.
Smith, County Juvenile Director Ken Dukek, Assessor Jim Kolan and Curry Community Health CEO Jan Kaplan outlined again at the city meeting how the numbers were derived and the importance of the levy’s passage. And a handful of citizens addressed the council urging them to support the measure.
“We need a strong, well-functioning government,” said Thomas Bozak of Brookings. “8-71 may not be perfect, but the alternatives are unacceptable. We’ll either have a collective county government or a state takeover. Neither is good for Brookings.”
A political action committee, working under the statement to “Keep Control Local,” is compiling lists of names of citizens in support of the measure to use in advertising, placing signs along roadways and talking with groups in attempts to sway the vote.
“If this fails, we will have a state takeover,” said Bob Horel, the director of the PAC. “We risk them taking our resources, changing our organization, our policies – all to suit Portland and Salem. We will have new taxes that will cost us a lot more.”
But it wasn’t enough to convince city councilors.
Adding fuel to their fire was that Smith apologized for having faced a deadline to compile the figures – and the subsequent tax levy request is too low.
“There was such a crunch going over all this data, and we had a time line to divert the fiscal disaster,” he said of state tax measure filing deadlines. “It is just shy of what is necessary to fund county government. I didn’t ask for enough, but we can’t do it with less.”
Inadvertently omitted from the figures is the emergency communications tower maintenance costs of $140,000 to $160,000 a year and the estimated $400,000 a year needed to put aside each year for their ultimate replacement. The towers, which cost about $1 million each, are about eight years into their 20-year lifespan, he said.
Bob Pieper of Brookings shared his indignation with the way the county is run, saying the private sector has suffered losses – losing money, employees and benefits – and the county should have to, as well.
“You see that guy in Harbor panhandling? That man’s broke,” he said. “Some of those guys at the free lunches – they have to make a choice of lunch or medicine. Our county isn’t all that broke.
“The easy way is more taxes,” he added. “Enough is enough. The private sector’s taken a hell of a hit. The system is not working. Go down and talk to the guy sitting with the sign. He knows what broke is. It’s not a joke to him.”
City officials created a different tax matrix based on population figures – an option Tim Patterson of Harbor prefers.
“The county government is broken; it’s been broken a long time,” he said. “For nine or 10 years we’ve known we’re going to run out of money. Make a stand, and vote no.”
Another bone of contention is that the city of Brookings, as part of Curry County, benefits from sheriff patrols. Councilors wanted to know if a tax levy for law enforcement wouldn’t be double-dipping and, if so, if the city would see a rebate on the current county’s tax rate of 59 cents per $1,000.
“I asked (then-councilman Larry) Anderson if that was the case and the answer was ‘no’,” Hedenskog said. “The room got real quiet. I said to myself, ‘That’s the answer: No,’ (to a levy proposal). And that levy went down by 67 percent.”
Councilor Brent Hodges said he opposes the levy because he doesn’t like the fundamental way in which county government operates.
“We have three commissioners who can’t communicate with each other (due to quorum laws),” he said. “In the private sector, if I had department heads who couldn’t communicate with each other, I wouldn’t have a business. Until that changes, I can’t be in favor of this.”
Councilor Bill Hamilton said he takes his mother’s advice when faced with dilemmas: If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.
“Any time I didn’t listen, I ended up with egg on my face,” he said. “And I do not feel right about this. I cannot put any support behind this at this juncture.”