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Voters to decide property tax levy

Curry County commissioners voted 2-1 Wednesday morning to place on the May 21 ballot a question asking for a property tax levy to provide funding for public safety.

Now it’s up to voters.

Its passage, while expected, wasn’t unanimous, even as commissioners David Brock Smith and David Itzen strongly urged Commissioner Susan Brown to change her stance on the temporary tax to show a united front to voters. Brown voted against the motion and said she will not vote for it as a citizen on the May ballot, either.

“You recognize the necessity of these additional funds; I’d hope you weigh in with your support,” Itzen said prior to the vote. “It’s very important to speak with a united voice.”

The tax measure asks voters in unincorporated Curry County to approve a levy of $1.97 per $1,000 assessed property valuation and those living in the county’s three cities for a $1.84 increase. The difference is based on the percentage of county services used by each area.

It would bring in an estimated $4.5 million the first year, and gradually increase with new construction and assessments over the years to an estimated $5.09 million in 2017-2018.

Currently, Curry County property owners pay 59 cents per $1,000 in assessed value — second lowest in the state, followed only by Josephine County at a penny less. If voters approve the tax measure in May, the county will still have the second lowest tax rate in Oregon.

It has mixed support already.

City officials in Brookings have indicated their skepticism about the numbers that made up the basis of the plan, Gold Beach city officials have expressed their general approval and Port Orford is still on the fence, Smith said.

Permanent vs. bridge

Smith twice asked Brown why she wouldn’t approve the motion — and what plan she has, if it fails, to finance public safety from May to November when the county could again approach voters.

“I wholeheartedly respect law enforcement,” she said. “There’s never been a question in my mind that that’s an important agency. But I’d like permanent funding for a law enforcement district.”

The tax levy proposed would expire in five years, giving commissioners time to find permanent funding for public safety. At that time — or sooner, if federal timber revenue were to appear — voters would be asked to approve a permanent levy to create and fund a district.

But the timing is critical.

“If we don’t act in May, we’re out of revenue,” Smith said. “No funding will be realized until the following November, and we’ll be unable to protect our citizens until then.”

Without voter approval, Curry County will operate on a $2.1 million budget beginning July 1. That means the jail will close, there will be no deputy patrols in the county’s unincorporated areas, and services in the DA’s and juvenile offices will be triaged, with only major crime cases pursued.

The county would run out of money in February 2014.

And once the economy revives, it will be even more expensive to reinstate the services, Itzen noted.

For example, the jail, built in 1962, is not in compliance with numerous state and federal standards. If it were to close, it could not be reoccupied, which would mean a new tax measure asking for millions of dollars to build a new one. Other counties in the states don’t have jails, but then end up spending money transporting prisoners to and from the jail and to court.

Public safety district

All commissioners want a permanent levy for funding a law enforcement district — but even Sheriff John Bishop says it takes about two years to create one.

Brown said she’s spoken with attorneys who have said a district can be created within six months — giving commissioners enough time to do so before the November election, at which point she’d like to put a ballot question to voters asking for a permanent revenue source to fund it.

 “The (financing) options in the intervening months? Do I know? No,” Brown said. “I might have a better answer three months from now when we’ve had a chance to look at it. It’ll be the same for all of us. What happens in the meantime — do I have that answer? No.”

Forming a district involves not just creating boundaries — including possible future annexations — but determining a fair levy, naming a board, figuring how much money it will cost to do what, and getting approvals.

“The framework is the easy part,” he said. “There’s a lot of background work for this. We’ve done some of it. But you don’t want to ask for a $2 tax levy and find out it’s not enough and have to come back to the voters in two years.”

It’s likely the county would borrow other county’s district frameworks to build the foundation for a district, but the specifics are what takes time, he said.

“It can be done,” Bishop said. “It just can’t be done in six to nine months. We’d nowhere near have the framework and the house built by November. We are barely staying afloat. This levy would keep us afloat, but it by no means drives the ship. We should’ve done this 20 years ago.”

“This is not done easily,” Smith said. “We’re at this point after years of independent research, years of cuts to services in public safety. This action isn’t taken lightly.” 

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