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Solution to county woes elusive

Curry County
Curry County
Participants of the Oregon Kitchen Table study say they have little appetite for cutting more from the county budget — but results indicate there is no clarity about how other revenue would be raised.

The only thing respondents overwhelmingly agreed on is that Curry County is on the wrong track, said Wendy Willis, who helped head up the project.

“The citizenry has failed to acknowledge, or has ignored, the reality of the current county services funding crisis,” a general synopsis of comments indicated. “That failure is demonstrated in the failure to pass funding measures on past ballots.”

The county has until March 2 to decide if it will put a tax measure on the May ballot. In the meantime, commissioners agreed, they have a lot of citizen education — and trust-building — to do.

The Kitchen Table Project is a collaboration of state and local agencies — using Curry County as a pilot project — to assess public opinion about county services. It was also crafted to test the waters regarding how different funding scenarios — property or sales taxes — would sit with voters, considering the county faces a $3 million budget shortfall.

The project was funded in part by the Oregon Community and Ford Family foundations, Portland State University and others. About 550 Curry County residents participated in the survey online or in the Curry Coastal Pilot, a turnout that impressed Willis.

A tax increase, indeed, is the biggest challenge facing commissioners, they agreed. And based on the feedback received in the study, they will likely have a lot of educating to entice voters to approve any kind of tax measure.

Participants were asked in one part of the survey to rank one of five funding options they felt the county should pursue.

They included:

•Increasing from 59 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation to $2.98 per $1,000 in property taxes for five years to get the budget back to where it was in 2006-07;

•Creating a 2-percent county sales tax with limited exemptions;

•Creating a 3-percent county sales tax with exemptions for essential purchases such as food and medicines;

•Creating a special law enforcement district to support the sheriff’s office, jail and DA’s office with a permanent property tax assessment of $2.32 per $1,000;

•Nothing at all.

A third of respondents ranked the five-year, $2.98 per $1,000 property tax as their first choice, with 16 percent ranking that as their second choice.

Fifteen percent were in favor of the 2 percent tax, 17 percent said they preferred a law enforcement district, 21 percent preferred a 3 percent sales tax and 17 percent said they want the county to do nothing and reduce or eliminate services altogether.

Even adding the rankings together — for instance, the 33 percent in favor of a property tax as a first choice and the 16 percent in favor of it as a second choice — doesn’t produce a consensus.

The “do nothing,” or “let the county burn” option, as Finance Director Gary Short calls it, isn’t much of an option, Willis said.

“Any way I could look at it, it was not favored,” she said. “That said, there is no clear alternative chosen. Even if you put two (rankings) together, you still don’t get a clear answer. And you do not want to do nothing. Doing nothing is an extreme choice.”

Some respondents said they were disappointed that taxation was the only option presented to them in the survey.

“Some people don’t want any of this,” said Commissioner Susan Brown. “The options locked you into the mind-set that we’re only going to look at taxes. Taxes aren’t the answers to all our problems. There are counties in Oregon with huge tax bases and still have problems. It’s tax or do nothing; where’s the middle ground? I wish there’d been more options.”

Willis said most of those who took the survey were Democrats, which doesn’t reflect the demographics of the county. So, the study analysts weighted the results differently to give it a more balanced result, Willis explained.

“That brought the numbers closer together,” she said, “but it wasn’t enough to change it to a majority.”

They also removed the youth responses — they are compiled in another packet — as it was obvious the younger set doesn’t have the knowledge about county government operations and finances older citizens do. And, Willis noted in the report, some residents did not agree with any of the options, as they stated in open-ended responses, but were forced to rank them in order to continue the questionnaire.

Educating the public will be key — whether the commissioners pursue a sales or property tax — as study respondents indicated they were split on those lines, as well. And county commissioners will have to present a united front to gain the trust of voters.

Itzen said business owners tell him they would support a property tax — and vehemently oppose a sales tax — while property owners are more inclined to support a sales tax.

Commissioners also bandied about the idea of delving deeper into the survey results to ask respondents more pointed questions about their willingness to tax themselves.

“We need to get into reality for a second,” Herbage said. “We have a short time line. If you’re thinking about putting something on the ballot, frankly, you have to move in that direction in the next couple of weeks.”

Many citizens have suggested “economic development” — primarily luring new business to the area — as the solution to the county’s financial mess. But that takes time — and the county has run out of that, Itzen said.

“They said it would take 400 golf courses, 3,500 McDonald’s, and that still wouldn’t replace the rug the federal government has pulled out from under us,” he said. “And we’re rapidly coming to a point where we must make a decision or it will be a failure.”

Willis noted that, while 90 percent of survey respondents said they’d participate in such a survey again, only 50 percent said they believed commissioners would listen to them.

“The problem is we have to wrestle this elk to the ground and strangle it,” Itzen said. “We’re out of arrows. To extend this low level of operations (into the future) in the county is unacceptable.” 

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