The financial crisis facing Curry and others rural Oregon counties has its roots in several events over three decades, and it has no clear solution in the near future.
We have watched and reported on the political and demographic events as they unfolded over the past 30 years. Now, the Pilot is about to launch a full-scale journalistic effort to put all the pieces together and present our readers with a clearer picture of how and why we reached this precipice, and what the potential solutions might be.
Our endeavor will include reviewing past stories and interviews with county, state and national officials.
The timeline will begin in the 1980s, when most of Curry County was covered by federal timber lands and harvest from those lands provided jobs and a share of timber receipts for county government – until environmental groups used the Endangered Species Act to shut down logging on federal lands.
In the 1990s, Curry County had one of the lowest property tax rates in the state, and Oregon voters approved Ballot Measure 5 and its severe limits on raising property taxes. Locally, there was a short-lived effort to develop “nature based tourism” as a replacement for the timber dollars, which was – in some limited ways – successful. Meanwhile, the Curry County commissioners of the early 1990s continued spendthrift ways.
In the 2000s, county spending tightened by nearly half, but requests for state aid were met by legislators who could not see past the very low property tax rates. The national housing boom was magnified in Curry County as higher-income retirees discovered the area. But when the housing bubble burst, many were left “upside down” on mortgages, and on fixed incomes heavily dependent on “transfer income” from Social Security and stock market investments. There was, and still is, little to no support for proposed property tax levies – even for public safety.
Through the course of our investigation, we hope to address many questions, including:
•Is the federal government fully responsible for what has happened in Curry County, or did decisions by county policymakers and voters contribute to the crisis?
•Would raising property taxes have helped? Will they now?
•What did Curry County do – or not do – that it should have?
This isn’t so much about assessing blame, but learning from the past to understand why Curry County now stands at brink of bankruptcy, and what solutions can be found.