It’s hard to see a happy end to the budget problems that have Curry County on the brink of financial disaster. Every solution offered — including a possible sales taxes now being considered — has serious drawbacks.
The county has relied heavily on timber revenues from the federal government to fill coffers from 1937 until the early 1990s. Since then, they’ve relied nearly as heavily on funds from the federal Secure Rural Schools Act. That money dried up this year.
Meanwhile, the county has other problems. Per capita income is at or below $32,000 annually, about 75 percent of the national average, and it has the second largest percentage of retirement-age residents in Oregon, trailing only Wheeler.
All of which may help explain — but not justify — why voters in Curry County rejected a bond measure last month that would have kept sheriff’s department patrols and jails running.
This leaves Curry County with $2.1 million to pay for all services, including public safety, elections, veterans affairs and the like, in the coming year.
It cannot be done.
Among the proposals to correct the situation:
• Residents have talked about establishing citizen law enforcement patrols in rural areas. Of all the ideas put forth, the one of county-sanctioned vigilante patrols is downright scary and may be illegal.
• There’s also talk of letting struggling counties keep some of the state lottery revenue generated within them, thereby cheating other Oregonians by diverting the funds.
• A bill in the Legislature, HB 3453, would allow the governor to impose an income tax on the county, matched by state funds, to keep public safety agencies running. Political leaders in the counties would have to agree, and we’re not holding our breath on that one.
• Gov. John Kitzhaber has talked of activating the National Guard to supply law enforcement in affected counties while some county residents have suggested that the state contract with sheriff’s departments to pay to keep deputies employed. Of all the suggestions, these two may actually make the most sense because they’re simple and address the counties’ most critical need.
In the end, however, residents are going to have to come to grips with a hard truth. Despite earlier promises from the federal government, the county’s ability to provide adequate services lies in their hands.
They may get another temporary fix or two, but no permanent solution will ever be found in Salem or Washington, D.C.