U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) wants Curry County commissioners, and those in other O&C counties, to consider asking voters for a property tax increase as part of the governor’s plan to put foresters back to work and counties back on their fiscal feet.
Gov. John Kitzhaber’s proposed plan – and a 14-member panel named to work on it – would ensure adequate sources of timber to support local mills and jobs and meet Oregon’s water and land conservation goals in the process. Kick-starting the logging industry could then help get counties out of the financial straits in which they have found themselves in recent years.
Kitzhaber hopes the group will create a plan to take to the Oregon delegation and Congress early next year.
But Wyden this week said he thinks the counties should “consider raising taxes” or find some other line of local revenue as part of any proposal to replace the money lost from federal timber sales revenue. Kitzhaber had indicated the same in an October 2011 letter to the Curry County Board of Commissioners, saying that low tax rates in those counties “will need to be raised.”
“He (Kitzhaber) said, ‘We will do the best we can to help you, but don’t expected a lot until you help yourselves,’” said Commissioner David Itzen. “They have a point, but it’s easy to make that point from the high-rise offices in Salem and Portland where they have full employment.”
Curry County has the second-lowest property tax in the state for county operations – 59 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation – and follows only Josephine County with a property tax rate of 58 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation. In past decades, the counties have counted on federal monies from O&C lands for their general fund budgets; this year, that source comes to an end.
It’s left counties scrambling – laying off employees, spinning off departments to nonprofit organizations, releasing prisoners and cutting spending – to try to figure out what to do before the tap runs dry June 30, 2013.
Ballot questions asking voters to approve property tax increases are shot down more often than not; the last one posed to Curry County voters was last fall.
“If you look at the average income here, it’s not much below other counties,” Itzen said. “But our property tax values are high. It’s easy to say, ‘Why don’t you help yourself?’ But it’s not that easy.”
Most new jobs and businesses to the state have come to Portland, where there is an abundance of transportation infrastructure.
“People here live on fixed incomes,” Itzen said. “Our unemployment rate is 11.4 percent. We don’t have a manufacturing base. We don’t have rail service, and there’s been no effort to bring it here. We haven’t got redundancy Internet service yet. Without that advantage, it makes it difficult for our citizens to support new taxes.”
Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson, one of the O&C Land representatives on the governor’s panel said the suggestion of looking into higher property taxes is a “non-starter,” and that it’s tough to get voters to approve tax increases even in times of fiscal security.
An additional challenge is the length of time it takes to get an issue on the ballot – even if it’s an emergency referendum, Itzen said.
The county commissioners decided earlier this year not to place a taxing issue on next March’s ballot because there will be two new commissioners after Jan. 1, 2013, and the process could be interrupted, or the new board might not want to do so.
Even so, once they are seated, Itzen said, the new commissioners will likely attend workshops to learn about issues facing the county. Then they could, if they choose, draft language for a property tax increase – a process that can take 60 days.
At that point, the ballot question is sent to the Secretary of State for review, who has 80 days – what Itzen calls the “80-day rule” – in which to approve or disapprove the language.
“It makes it virtually impossible to come up with a ballot measure,” Itzen said. “The hurdles are so high, we cannot solve our own problems to bring it to vote before we hit the fiscal cliff in May.”
Friday, he planned to have his office call the Oregon Secretary of State to ask if there is something that can be done at that level to expedite the 80-day rule. As it stands, that office doesn’t plan to examine it until February.
He might also send a delegation to the governor’s office to explain the difficulties Curry County faces due to the rule and how commissioners have little time in which to draft a revenue creation ballot question and post it to voters before June 30, 2013, when the fiscal year ends.
Overall, Itzen supports the proposed O&C plan and the panel established to get something to Congress.
“To develop a plan that’s supported by the environmental community gives me hope,” he said. “But their past history – the Endangered Species Act, the constant (legal) challenges. That doesn’t give us much hope. I wish the governor well on this.”
The panel hopes to have a proposal before Congress early next year.
Funding local revenue is a key point in solving county funding and federal forest receipts, according to a seven-item statement of principles outlined by Wyden.
“I hope they don’t take their time,” Itzen said. “We are out of time. Things are unravelling a little faster than expected.”