County Commissioner David Brock Smith was looking for approval for what he’s calling “a suture” to stop the county’s fiscal bloodletting when he spoke to about 20 Curry County Homebuilders Association members Tuesday night — and instead walked away with a few gashes of his own.
“I got a little beat up,” he said the next day. “A few bruises.
“But this isn’t a Band-Aid,” he said of the tax levy approved by two of the county commissioners Wednesday. “A Band-Aid won’t stop the bleeding. It’s a suture to stop the bleeding, but it’s definitely not the reconstructive surgery to cover the scar.”
The levy will ask voters to approve a property tax increase of $1.84 per $1,000 assessed valuation for property within city limits and $1.97 per $1,000 for those in unincorporated Curry County. Commissioners approved putting it on the May 21 ballot 2-1, with Commissioner Susan Brown voting against it.
If approved, the levy would bring in $4.5 million to county coffers; without it, the county will have to operate on a $2.1 million budget. That would likely mean closing the jail, laying off 65 more employees, handing over some services to the state and vastly reducing the scope of the DA’s office and probation and parole services.
Smith was invited to discuss details of the levy.
Taxing the taxed?
While the homebuilders didn’t come up with a consensus about the tax levy, most who spoke in the informal meeting indicated Curry County voters would be unlikely to vote for a tax increase — again.
“In order to get something passed, you need to get Brookings to vote for it,” said Brookings City Councilor Jake Pieper. “It’s going to be a tough go. And perception is reality. Brookings may use the majority of the jail, the DA. But that’s not the perception in the public.”
Tim Patterson, who owns property both in town and out, said he’d rather vote on a tax after the measure fails.
“If your theater gets broken into,” Smith queried, “and the cop gives him a ticket — no, wait; there’s no DA to prosecute it. …”
“Then I’d care,” Patterson said. “Right now, I don’t care. I’m not voting for anything. “I’ll vote ‘no’ no matter what you have, not matter what the consequences.”
Pieper and his father, Bob, a local businessman, said they don’t think citizens will approve anything until they feel the pain of a $2.1 million budget.
“I think the reality is that things won’t change until the pain is felt,” Jake said. “Unfortunately it’ll cost a whole lot more in the end. But that’s probably what’s going to have to happen.”
There is a 5 percent difference between in-city and unincorporated Curry County in tax levy payments, which Jake Pieper said he believes must be a larger disparity — say 30 to even 55 percent — to get the vote in Brookings.
If it were to fail, and the jail to close, it would cost millions to build a new one — if the county and voters were to opt to do so — that meets state and federal codes. That doesn’t include the unknown costs for land that is not in the tsunami inundation zone. It has been noted that the only land on which a new jail or courthouse could be built would be in the south end of the county.
Open the woods
The main reason the county is short on funds is the elimination of timber revenue funds that have in the past supported county revenue.
Bob Pieper is angry about the forests being closed to logging, and said the state won’t open up the forests to logging until the county is broke.
“I have lived here for 15 years and have heard the same song and dance every year,” Bob Pieper said. “I haven’t heard the door shut yet. I say we stay the course, vote everything down and then they’ll open the doors (to the forest).”
He said the way the county spent money through the recession was completely different than that of those in the private sector who were suffering as well.
“The public knows that if you open your billfold and there’s no money, you do not spend,” he said. “You live with this amount of money this year. The government doesn’t know this. I’m tired of the government giving million of dollars here and here and here and just wasting it.
“I’ll personally come down there and shut the light switch off,” he added. “Once they all lose their jobs, then maybe they’ll listen, then maybe they’ll open the forest.”
“It’s hard for me to have any sympathy for the county when half my employees are gone,” said Tim Stadelman of Stadelman Electric. “If you’re really sincere, if you’re being a leader, you’d improve the odds of passing a levy if you took a pay cut. You raise my taxes, you’re effectively lowering my wages.”
Reed Ringer, owner of Gold Beach Lumber, agreed.
“It’s not because people believe $1.97 isn’t going to fix it; it’s because people don’t believe that $1.97 will be spent well,” he said. “I’m with cleaning it up like Bob says. Correct the course and find the tax base that works.”
Problems are already surfacing within the public safety realm.
People have stories. One man said he was unable to get a sheriff’s response for a man he’d seen consuming numerous bottles of beer in his car — and then set out on the road. Recently, a man was reported to be unconscious behind a Dumpster in Harbor; no one was on duty, forcing medical crews to respond without a police presence for safety.
Jake Pieper knows the frustration that comes from an inadequately staffed sheriff’s office.
His wife and kids were in a car accident south of town a year ago and had to wait by the side of the road for an hour until help arrived.
“All of a sudden, this isn’t theoretical anymore,” he said of impacts related to less-than-adequate funding.
He said the city will find a way to work around the ramifications of either an insolvent county or a $2.1 million county budget as it affects the city.
“The city of Brookings will find a way to fund it, if it’s (hiring) a deputy DA, transporting prisoners to Coos Bay. It will be paid for no matter what,” Jake said. “But the Brookings Police Department will not be responding to any unincorporated area unless it’s a life-threatening situation. Harbor doesn’t pay for it.”
Smith noted that while some citizens are viewing the proposed levy as a quadrupling of the tax they pay, if the amount were any less, commissioners would likely have to return to voters in a few years to ask for more.
“If we do a Band-Aid and barely limp by, people aren’t going to see the value,” Smith said. “If we do a suture, you won’t have to sit by the side of the road for an hour. You’ll see the value you voted for.”