Ballots for the Nov. 4 elections will be arriving in mailboxes next week and voters face the daunting challenge of choosing between nothing but tax increases.
Residents of Gold Beach and Port Orford have the most to win — or lose — depending on opinions and votes cast.
Getting approval for any given tax is challenge enough, but complicating it further this election season is that whenever voters face two or more tax issues on one ballot, the odds of all failing increase.
“People get overwhelmed with the fact they’re seeing this tax and that tax and this tax all at once,” said County Commissioner David Brock Smith. “They look at their finances and their checkbook, and the wonder if they can write a check for that. Sometimes, they end up saying, ‘I’m not going to write a check for anything.’”
Mail-in ballots were sent out to voters this week; people should expect to see them in the mail as early as today (Oct. 19) or early next week.
All voters 8-73
Every registered voter in Curry County — all 13,000 of them — will cast their ballots for what county commissioners hope is the last time on Measure 8-73.
The measure asks for a three-year, countywide property tax increase of $1.345 per $1,000 assessed valuation to fund law enforcement.
Currently, Curry County operates on a tax rate of 59.9 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation, the second lowest in the state. That tax rate brings in about $2.1 million to the county — leaving the county some $3.5 million short to make its budget.
Many taxpayers see their tax bills and notice the county collects some $22 million. But more than $20 million of that is redistributed to schools ($12.38 million) the county’s three cities (total: $3.345 million) and fire, library, port and health districts, with the county merely serving as the intermediary.
Other county pots receive state and grant funding, and those funds usually can only be spent for those services.
The rest — $2.1 million — goes into the county’s general fund, from which county operations and public safety are funded.
This summer, the commissioners adopted a $2.1 million budget, but those funds will carry the county until mid-spring, County Accountant Gary Short has said on numerous occasions. By May — and even by “borrowing” money from the county’s road fund and unemployment insurance reserve — the county will have about $1 million left in its coffers.
County commissioners last spring advocated for a similar tax measure, but opted to back off this time, Smith said, noting that “the people already know what’s going on.”
This time, because voters in the north end of the county are confronting three ballot issues, Smith said he’s depending on those in the south end to carry the county tax measure.
“It’s bare bones, it keeps current levels of county services — it basically keeps the doors open and the lights on,” he said. “For the folks in the county, public safety is as central as public health services, and they need to remember that when they mark the ‘x’ box for our different funding solutions to keep emergency services solvent.”
If it passes ...
The money generated by Measure 8-73, expected to be $3.2 million, will be exclusively used to sustain current service levels in the Sheriff, District Attorney and Juvenile offices.
The departments provide services such as the operations of the jail, crime investigations and prosecutions, parole, probation, emergency services, victims assistance, child advocacy, juvenile justice, detention, and court supervision and operations.
The biggest consumers of the revenue include jail operations getting $1.09 million, sheriff patrol operations with $672,223, sheriff and civil investigations with $656,016; juvenile prevention and detention with $454,893; property tax assessment and collection with $451,208; the district attorney’s office with $330,297; and the commissioner’s office with $350,308.
The Curry County Board of Commissioners specifically put wording in the ballot question to say that the tax will be reduced “in any year in which federal safety-net related payments” are received.
Those federal safety-net payments are what has kept Curry County solvent, if not entirely whole for the past several years since O&C timber revenue was discontinued. They have been reinstated every year — including an estimated $1 million payment for next year — but are not guaranteed to be available at any given time.
If it fails ...
Although many in the community have said Sheriff John Bishop and the county commissioners are merely using scare tactics to get voters to approve a tax levy, it remains possible that if Measure 80-73 fails in the polls, the state could take over county operations.
Even that, however, is not as simple as it sounds.
House Bill 3453, approved by the state Legislature this spring, allows the governor declare a public safety fiscal emergency in counties where conditions fail to provide a “minimally adequate level” of public safety services. The counties hardest-hit – and most likely to be addressed first — include Curry, Josephine, Coos and Jackson. Other O&C counties, however, could follow.
The bill could have gone into effect Oct. 7, 91 days after the Legislature adjourned, but it likely hasn’t because county officials here continue to try to solve the problem at the local level.
If a fiscal emergency were declared, the state would staff to what it perceives as adequate levels the various required offices at the county level. The cost of providing that service would be paid for by an income tax surcharge of up to 22 percent, of which the state has already agreed to pick up half.
An income tax surcharge is not an addition to the existing income tax rate of 9.9 percent. It is a surcharge, in this case, of 11 percent assessed to the amount of the tax paid.
The state could keep the surcharge in place for 18 months, at which point it would decide whether to abolish it or continue it another 18 months.
For Brookings citizens, this is the only question on the Nov. 5 ballot.
The North End
The cities of Gold Beach and Port Orford, however, are each being asked two tax questions in addition to the county measure.
Together, they are being asked by the Curry Health Network to approve a 30-year, $10 million bond that will be used to obtain matching grants for the exclusive use of building a new hospital in Gold Beach and making improvements to the clinic in Port Orford.
Those in the Curry Hospital Network district — from Pistol River north to Port Orford and Sixes and east to Agness — would pay an additional 74 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation in property taxes.
Improvements in Port Orford would include increasing the number of hours it would be open, and providing visiting specialists, free sports physicals and walk-in visits. If approved, construction could begin as early as next spring with a move to the new facility in 2016.
Curry Health Network’s Gold Beach hospital is the last critical-access hospitals in the state to be replaced. Without it, those suffering acute medical situations — heart-attacks or life-threatening injuries, for instance — would lose the “golden hour” medical officials say is the optimal time in which a patient needs to get to definitive care before the odds of survival begin to plummet.
If the measure fails, Curry Health Network CEO Andrew Bair said, the hospital would have to close its doors by 2016.
He made that statement last week based on a state inspection that, unsurprisingly, revealed numerous building code deficits. The hospital has been able to get away with noncompliance of the code as it was built 60 years ago, many years before the codes were adopted, and is grandfathered in.
But now, Bair said, it’s getting to the point where some things just can’t be ignored.
This summer, the hospital had to shut down its operating room for two months because it was out of compliance with state regulations, costing the hospital an estimated $600,000 in revenue.
Without the funding, the clinic in Brookings would have no chance to get an emergency room designation or hospital beds of its own, either.
Gold Beach residents will also cast votes for or against a measure asking for a 35-cent per $1,000 assessed valuation so the city can purchase a new fire truck. Trucks are rotated in and retired on a regular schedule, and one is due to be replaced, said city administrator Jody Fritts.
And Port Orford is seeing its police department tax levy sunset; voters there will be asked to not only renew it, but hike it 59 cents per $1,000, to $1.90 per $1,000, for police enforcement in the city limits.