Scores of county commissioners, sheriffs and district attorneys from Oregon’s 18 O&C counties will arrive in Gold Beach later this week for a three-day “Public Safety Summit” meeting to discuss ways in which the financially strapped entities can get out of their respective fiscal quagmires.
The meetings, slated for Thursday afternoon, all day Friday and half of Saturday, were proposed by Curry County Commissioner David Itzen to consider the financial issues all O&C counties face since timber tax revenues ended in 2012.
Curry County faces a $3.5 million shortfall in its general fund, and voters rejected two property tax increase measures on the ballot last year. The county has spun off various departments to nonprofits to cut expenses, talked about the repercussions of closing the aging jail, and has taken $1.65 million from the road fund.
The county also faces across-the-board layoffs or asking the state for its assistance.
House Bill 3453, approved last summer in the state legislature, would allow Gov. John Kitzhaber to restaff county departments to “adequate” levels and assess a 23 percent income tax surcharge — half of which would be paid for from state emergency funds — to pay for those services.
Curry County commissioners are also considering an option available under the legislation that would allow them to increase the 911 fee on cellphones; revenue generated would go toward public safety. Other cost-sharing ideas have included sharing jail space with neighboring counties, merging some operations with cities, creating law enforcement districts and consolidating 911 systems.
Curry County isn’t the only county in Oregon facing this dilemma, but elected officials agree it is the first. Lane, Josephine, Jackson and Coos counties are right behind in their concerns about fiscal solvency and public safety.
And elected officials are short on time: County Accountant Gary Short has repeatedly said the county will be out of money by spring.
Some details have yet to be finalized, as there are dozens of people to coordinate in a short period of time, said Eric Schmidt, communications manager for the Association of Oregon Counties (AOC).
The public will get its chance first, from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday in the Showcase Building at the Curry County Fairgrounds. There, citizens will be free to outline their concerns and ideas to Steve Kent of The Results Group of Santa Rosa, Calif. According to its website, the management consulting firm specializes in strategy, facilitation and problem solving to help its clients independently achieve tangible results.
“They will tell him what they think is wrong, what is right, what needs to be done,” Schmidt said. “He’s going to take this information and, when he comes back Friday morning, he’ll have a better idea of what the public perceives — from their point of view.”
Officials with the AOC are well aware of the problems facing Curry County, Schmidt said, and Kent has worked with numerous other groups in facilitating resolution.
And participants know Curry County is unable to pay for the event, either. With that in mind, the Ford Family Foundation donated $8,000 toward the summit meeting, said county Economic Development Director Pamela Dickson. Also, the AOC and State Sheriffs Association each contributed $1,500 toward the cost of the summit meeting, $1,000 was donated by the Gordon Elwood Foundation, and the Association of Oregon District Attorneys donated another $500.
Friday’s presentation will begin at 8:30 p.m. and outline legislative actions at the state and national level; speakers will likely include the superintendent of the Oregon State Police, the president of the State Sheriffs Association, and Doug Harcleroad, executive director of the Association of Oregon District Attorneys.
Representatives from the state Department of Justice, the Attorney General’s office and the judicial departments will present an overview of their roles in public safety. And Gov. Kitzhaber’s public safety adviser Heidi Moawad, and Mike McArthur, executive director of the AOC, will address House Bill 3453 and its possible ramifications.
Discussion is then planned to determine who is impacted by the public safety system — and who impacts it — and what are “adequate” and “acceptable” levels of service.
After lunch, a panel discussion will address the liability to a county if a jail is closed, and another will address the state legislature’s responsibility for local public safety. Breakout sessions will follow.
Saturday, Schmidt said, is when the group will focus on possible solutions.
Discussions will be held regarding various counties’ public education efforts and how successful they have been in getting the point across to citizens about the severity of the fiscal problems.
The day will finish with talks about a possible action plan, the next steps and who needs to take them.
“This group (participants) will work on finding a path forward,” Schmidt said. “It will look at possible solutions that are achievable in the near-term — what needs to be done, and who needs to do it. It will be honest discussion about what we can realistically do and what we need help with.”
Some ideas could be tried and true, tried and abandoned — or worthy of reconsideration, he added.
“We will be thinking outside of the box,” Schmidt said. “Sometimes when you have these discussions, the best ideas come up. Maybe it’s a modification of an old idea, or an old, old idea that needs to be revisited. Maybe someone has new idea. We have to find out if they’re out there.”
The importance of the discussion cannot be understated, either, he said.
“It’s a discussion that needs to take place,” Schmidt said. “The governor’s office wouldn’t be participating if they didn’t think it was a discussion that needs to take place. The attorney general wouldn’t come down here if they didn’t think it was a discussion that needs to take place.
“This is going to be a discussion — a forum for a solution,” he added. “The sheriffs want this. The DAs want this. But we can’t do it individually; we have to do it collectively and figure out a way to do it together.”
Itzen believes the discussion will provide a good base from which the county can proceed to solve its fiscal challenges.
“(Kitzhaber) thinks this is the beginning of a discussion that needs to take place,” Schmidt said. “We’re not going to let this go.”
And he said all involved are aware that Curry County is essentially out of time.
“No one wants an Oregon county to declare a fiscal disaster or a public safety emergency,” he said. “We’re cognizant of the situation in Curry County. We’re going to work like hell.”