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Safety summit highlight challenges

Curry County commissioners Tuesday were compared to a reality show and called a “spirited little group,” as they vehemently argued about what should be on the agenda of a proposed meeting to address public safety funding.

The “passionate discussion,” as Commissioner Susan Brown called it, took place during a followup meeting of the Public Safety Summit held in Gold Beach in January. This meeting, in Central Point, was held to expand upon ideas to generate revenue for public safety in Oregon’s 18 O&C counties. 

“This reminds me of Salem, of dealing with legislators,” said Oregon State Police Superintendent Rich Evans, who sat at the same table. “You guys have to work together and work this out before it becomes a catastrophe. You need to address this before it affects my guys, before it affects the sheriff’s guys. You’ve got to get together.”

Summit, Part II

The Curry County table was one of five — the others being Jackson, Josephine, Douglas and the fifth with an array from other counties — gathered to discuss details about how to generate revenue before they have no money left.

Curry County is the first — but certainly not the last — of Oregon’s 18 O&C counties to go through the struggle of identifying and getting voter approval to develop revenue sources since federal timber subsidies were slashed in 2012.

The county has a $3.5 million shortfall in its general fund budget and the department that could be most affected is the Sheriff’s Office, which spends the bulk of that fund’s money. If the county doesn’t come up with a long-term financial solution, it is possible the county will be out of money by end of summer.

Two attempts to pass property tax increases failed last year, and other counties are watching to see what elected officials here do; they hope to learn what to do — and not do — to keep their counties fiscally viable, as well.

Among the issues was to identify key state and federal initiatives for which counties should lobby to obtain financing for adequate public safety services, defining “adequate levels” of public safety services and how to develop intergovernmental partnerships.

Other issues affecting Curry County include how to build and maintain good relationships between county and city officials and regain the trust of citizens — and thus, voters.

Consensus ...

Consensus — even on the idea of holding a town hall meeting — was key at Tuesday’s meeting, as Curry County officials believe they must present a united front to convince voters of anything, particularly if an upcoming ballot question might involve a tax.

In the end, they decided the meeting — the date has yet to be determined — will address cost-saving and revenue-generating ideas, notably a gas and transient lodging tax, assessment and taxation and business license fees.

County commissioners also hope to address today (March 19) a survey they plan to get to all voters to determine what kind of revenue-generating ideas taxpayers might support. Lane County, it has been pointed out, had 11 failed tax levy measures until officials polled their constituency to learn for what and how much they’d be willing to pay.

Collectively, the group of about 50 sheriffs and county commissioners agreed a deal must be made at the federal or state level regarding timber cuts in the national forest.

“The reality is, the stupid snail darter is more important than human beings,” said Gold Beach Mayor Karl Popoff. “That’s what gripes my rear end. The federal government took away our livelihoods. We didn’t ask to be on the dole; we didn’t ask to be their stepchild. They reneged on their promises.”

Other issues the group agreed might be the most feasible to pursue include changing state law to redirect lottery dollars so counties get 50 percent of what was spent within their boundaries; allowing lodging dollars to be diverted to the county general fund; and allowing counties to collect a gasoline tax for some aspect of public safety.

The goal of defining an “adequate level” of public safety services, however, was glossed over, with Curry County Sheriff John Bishop noting that the county is already far below providing even minimal safety services for its citizens.

“It’s already an issue; otherwise we wouldn’t be here,” he said. “I can’t stand up to the citizens of Curry County and say I can adequately protect them.”

Ultimately, the group agreed that each county has different needs, and to find out what those are, leaders need to ask residents. And crime statistics can help to show citizens what a county needs in its public safety realm.

One participant noted that crime is dramatically on the rise in Josephine County because people aren’t afraid of going to jail there.

“At some point the citizens are going to come back and say, ‘Where’s the protection I pay taxes for?’ At some point, it becomes a headline: ‘Public safety’s a disaster.’ By then, we’re well behind the curve.”

Representatives from the various counties also discussed ways they can collaborate on a regional basis, be it by consolidating 911 systems over county lines or partnering with police in cities to help officers in unincorporated areas of a county.

Bishop has started discussions about consolidating the 911 operations in Gold Beach with those in Brookings — but noted that to do so must involve voter approval for a revenue source that would separate the jail from the general fund.

… and disagreement

Contention began when Commissioner David Brock Smith suggested that the upcoming meeting address Bishop’s proposed tax levy of 68 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation, which would raise $1.6 million just for jail operations.

That didn’t sit well with Commissioner Susan Brown, who said the voters have already spoken their piece regarding property taxes — and she would not support the tax measure if that was all that was going to be discussed at the meeting.

“The citizens have told us time and time again that they demand something different,” she said. “We need to discuss assessment and taxation fees, the TLT tax, business license fees, a gas tax. At least let them know we’re thinking outside the box. They say we don’t have any skin in the game; let’s get some skin in the game.

“We need to listen to what they want,” she added. “Listen to what they tell us. It doesn’t matter to them if we go out and dance together in the streets and have a kumbaya moment, if we’re just going right back to them again with a levy. They are demanding something different.”

The table, which also included Popoff and Brookings City Manager Gary Milliman, even argued about how to “wipe the slate clean” and mend — or even build — bridges between city and county leaders.

Commissioners agree they need to agree on something, lest they lose even more of the public’s trust.

“We need to demonstrate to citizens we’ve turned the corner,” said Commissioner David Itzen.

Bishop suggested that “communication, communication, communication,” was key to bridging the problems between the county and cities, notably Brookings.

“It doesn’t have to be once a month — just fricking talk to one another,” he said. “Just a phone call. It keeps the channels open. Sometimes I talk to (Gold Beach Police Chief) Dixon (Andrews) over a cup of coffee, and we don’t talk about anything (of import). You need that communications, that rapport. I know that when I need Dixon, that relationship’s been established and he’s there for me.”

Commissioners will announce when they plan to hold the “town hall” meeting to get citizen input.

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