After much debate, the Curry County Commissioners Thursday afternoon directed County Attorney Jerry Herbage to craft the wording for a ballot question that will be placed on the May ballot.
Commissioners David Itzen and David Brock Smith voted for the motion; Commissioner Susan Brown voted against it.
The wording will essentially direct Herbage to “write the ballot title and language for a five-year public safety levy” for the May ballot, Smith said. The levy would assess $1.97 per $1,000 assessed valuation for residents living in unincorporated Curry County and $1.84 per $1,000 for those living in the county’s three incorporated cities: Brookings, Gold Beach and Port Orford.
That means an in-city homeowner with a house assessed at $160,000 would pay $294.40 more a year – or $24.53 a month. A homeowner in unincorporated Curry County would pay $315.20 more a year, or $26.27 more a month.
“That’s less than $1 a day to fund all of this,” Smith said of services offered by the county.
The difference in the levies, Smith outlined at a meeting earlier this month, is to reflect the percentage of county services used by cities. For instance, the cities only use about 5 percent of sheriff’s patrol services, and should only pay for what they use. Alternatively, the juvenile department spends 80 percent of its funds on clients who live within city boundaries, and should pay their fair share, Smith said.
“And I will direct Jerry to let everyone know that within the title and the language will be wording to the effect of, ‘once any additional revenue sources are realized, the amount of the levy taxed to our citizens will be reduced proportionately,’” he added.
That wording is put in place in part to appease voters who are disinclined to approve a tax increase, but also because some economic development ideas are getting under way – notably a pyrolysis plant north of Gold Beach, a forest health initiative and the relentlessly pursued O&C lands funding – that could help more permanently provide revenue to the county.
It’s that lack of permanence in Smith’s proposal that Brown didn’t like.
She would prefer a ballot question asking voters to take the Sheriff’s Office out of the general fund, create a law enforcement district and fund that with its own permanent levy. She maintains that if such a measure were put on the November ballot, the commissioners would have enough time between now and then to create the district.
Sheriff John Bishop, however, has said it takes about two years to create a district, and money would not start to flow into county coffers for about a year-and-a-half after that.
Brown said she will not lobby in favor of the ballot issue.
“I will applaud voters either way,” she said. “But it is still a temporary, short-term solution, and we’ve been playing with short-term solutions for a long time.”
She suggests further county belt-tightening in addition to continuing to work toward the creation of a law enforcement district, which has the support of the other two commissioners, as well.
“This doesn’t rule out a more permanent measure like that proposed by Commissioner Brown,” Itzen said. “But it is advantageous. A lot can happen in five years in the revenue picture. And the most important thing is that the effect of a failure would be far worse.”
County commissioners were deluged with phone calls and emails this week from residents expressing, not so much their support for a tax levy, but their opposition to a sales tax, which was also an option offered up by a survey conducted by the Oregon Kitchen Table.
Brookings-Harbor Chamber of Commerce CEO Les Cohen told commissioners his board does not support that avenue.
“We have received comments from potential new residents and businesses, as well as tourists, who are concerned about such a tax,” he said. “Their responses are strongly negative, and make Curry County less attractive to their consideration of visiting, relocating or doing business.”
Reed Ringer, owner of Gold Beach Lumber, echoed his sentiments.
“It puts a real hardship on the merchants,” he said. “I compete not just locally or regionally, but I compete with the Internet.”
He said his lumberyard parking lot always has cars in it bearing California plates, whose owners avoid paying a sales tax by crossing the border into Oregon, and he would likely lose that business to surrounding counties on major purchases.
He also doesn’t want to be put in the role of policing purchases.
“The last time (a tax levy was proposed), you didn’t know what was taxed,” he said. “A fisherman wants to buy a fishing rod, but if he is a commercial fisherman, it won’t be taxed because it’s a business expense. A sports fisherman buying a pole is taxed. I don’t want to be the one asking ‘What are you using this for?’”
The perception that Curry County would be the only one in Oregon with a sales tax could have huge ramifications, as well, he said.
“It’s what they perceive,” Ringer emphasized. “A perception is difficult to overcome. They need gas, they’re hungry? They’ll stop. But if they’re building a garage, a house, a shed, a large capital investment, they’ll save money by leaving Curry County. We’ll lose the market here and from California.”
Commissioners agreed the hardest part is yet to come: educating a county that has the second-lowest tax levy in the state and in recent years, has overwhelmingly defeated every such referendum.
“If we have to deal with a $2.1 million budget, (if a levy fails), the county isn’t coming back,” Smith said. “This isn’t an easy thing to do. It has consumed me since I’ve been here.”