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Rural Oregon counties face grim financial future Print E-mail
Written by Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer   
January 24, 2014 09:39 pm

Curry County — and the 17 other O&C counties in Oregon — need to act fast to avoid becoming fiscally insolvent and facing a public service emergency, said consultant Steve Kent of The Results Group Ltd told elected officials Friday.

That’s because it will be at least three or four years before any federal legislation addressing forest management will launch, and the earliest at which state legislation to address public safety emergencies and fiscal insolvency could be implemented is estimated to be mid-spring of 2015. 

“We’re all facing difficult financial times; we’re all headed in the same direction,” Curry County Commissioner David Itzen told about 100 sheriffs, district attorneys and county commissioners from throughout the state at a Public Safety Summit meeting Friday in Gold Beach.

“It’s just that Curry and Josephine counties are leading the way down this dark alley trying to solve the problems,” he said. “Curry County is on the brink of a full-fledged public service emergency. There are no sacred cows in this meeting today.”

Elected officials gathered for the three-day meeting to discuss experiences and share ideas in hopes of crafting a solution to avoid fiscal insolvency since federal timber subsidies ended last year. The summit culminates this morning with a four-hour meeting to outline more definitive plans.

Curry County is the first county to edge toward fiscal insolvency since federal timber subsidies ended last year. The county has a $3.5 million shortfall in its general fund, and voters rejected two property tax measures to fund law enforcement last year.

Other O&C counties — Lane, Hood River, Josephine and others — are right behind Curry. Each outlined how the shortfalls to their general funds have affected their public safety services, including jails, district attorneys, juvenile departments and sheriffs’ offices.

Hood River’s jail could close as early as March. Josephine County is only responding to calls that are “life or death.” Most patrol officers in Southern Oregon don’t have backup from other deputies. Citizen “security” groups have banded together to ensure safety in Cave Junction. Jails aren’t busting at the seams — they have empty beds because counties can’t afford to staff them.

“I tell you, this isn’t a Josephine County problem,” said Oregon State Patrol Supervisor Rich Evans. “This is Columbia, Klamath, Polk. It isn’t just an isolated problem.”

Darin Tweedt, chief counsel with the Oregon Department of Justice agreed.

“I am scared right now about what’s happening in your communities,” he said. “I have heard, ‘Don’t go to that area; it’s not safe.’ I’ve heard the area’s a Hadrian Wall (a city enclosed by a wall outside of which reigns anarchy). And I’ve heard ‘the state will do something.’”

The state, he stated, is not going to come to the rescue, although House Bill 3453, approved by the Legislature last summer, remains an option. In that case, the state would staff county departments to an “acceptable level” and implement an income tax surcharge or 911 fee for the effort.

To solve it on their own, Kent said, counties will need strong leadership, good communications skills and a defined goal.

“Leadership is choices made to inspire others to action,” he said. “You can tell me how to do something, you can show me how to do something, but when you involve me, I own it.”

Ideas the group might address today including consolidation of services — not just between departments, but even municipalities and counties — creating a law enforcement district, educating citizens in other parts of the state about the dire situation facing half of Oregon’s counties, implementing a fuel tax to support public safety efforts and somehow forcing the federal government to pay taxes for land it owns in the county.

Privatization of law enforcement is creeping into the American vocabulary, Kent said. Regionalization of boards and districts could benefit counties. And special taxing districts could be disbanded and reorganized under a handful of agencies to reduce redundancy and obtain economies of scale.

Every effort will help, too. The Lottery Local Control Committee, founded in Josephine County last year, is likely to get an initiative on the November ballot that would divert lottery revenue funds to the counties in which they were generated. Curry County is toying with the idea of a lodging tax in unincorporated areas — and then getting the state law changed to allow the county to keep 100 percent of the revenues for a limited time.

County commissioners need to earn the trust of the public, as well. And law enforcement needs to create a more professional image of its duties to gain the respect it deserves, Kent said.

And leaders need to develop long-term, sustainable revenue streams to keep public safety alive.

“You’re going to hear this sucking sound coming out of (neighboring) counties, said Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson. “You’re a criminal magnet. We’ve already seen it, and it’s only going to get worse.” 

 

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