County Commissioner David Itzen hopes a homestead tax exemption idea he has might be part of the solution to Curry County's fiscal woes, particularly after last week's tax levy failure at the ballot box.
Currently, Curry County's tax rate is 59.9 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation, the second lowest in the state. A homestead exemption would grant certain homeowners a set exemption from the assessed value of their house.
For example, with a $25,000 exemption, a homeowner with a house assessed at $150,000 would pay taxes based on a $125,000 valuation - $88.50, a savings of $14.75. That same dollar savings would be realized on a house with an assessed valuation of $300,000.
"I always thought this idea was an excellent one," Itzen said.
"(Assessor) Jim Kolan is working on it; he thinks he can make it work. If it works, it's all worth it."
Itzen realizes that a homestead exemption would result in the county taking a financial hit, but believes that by helping homeowners, they in turn, might agree to increase property levy rates to make up the difference. Add that possibility to the economic development ideas on which the three county commissioners are working, and combined efforts just might provide the economic stimuli needed to keep county services running.
"It (the loss) would still have to be mitigated by other means, still yet to be identified," Itzen admitted. "And we still haven't found a way to get below $1.345 (proposed in the November measure). The $1.34 might even have to be higher."
County commissioners finally agreed to present to the voters a measure asking for a property tax hike of $1.34 per $1,000 this November. Brookings Mayor Ron Hedenskog has repeatedly said he couldn't support a measure unless the increase was closer to a dollar.
County services, already cut in half as timber subsidies were reduced in recent years, could face even more cuts in the next month or two since voters rejected that latest tax measure last week. Commissioners will address that problem at a special meeting Wednesday (Nov. 13) at 10 a.m. in Gold Beach.
Homestead exemptions might be addressed, as well.
Such tax exemptions run the gamut throughout the United States. Most require residency - sometimes familial generations of residency - while others address the acreage of land involved.
But all strive to protect home market values against taxation on assessed valuations.
Itzen got the idea while talking with Pilot publisher Charlie Kocher about tax relief and county revenue.
"Many, many people would be positively affected by it - even at $25,000," Itzen said.
Where the county wouldn't take a monetary hit would be among vacation rental homeowners, for which the exemption could be written to exclude. They would subsequently continue to pay the higher tax based on the assessed valuation of their property.
Itzen, the two other county commissioners and leaders at the state and federal level are working to get loggers back in the forest to reinvigorate the revenue stream that once filled county coffers.
But even the ideas presented locally - new business, manufactured home repair and replacement loans, wind energy and others - take time.
"We've been fairly innovative," Itzen said, referring to the departments the county has spun off to nonprofit status. "There has to be more revenue generated from another source. I think we're bare bones, but I think we can do more. It isn't going to be a pretty picture. "
The county's failure at the polls last week could mean major layoffs in most county departments - but particularly in the jail and Sheriff's Office. Itzen has long pointed out that the county's fiscal problems are due to a virtually non-existent in-flow of revenue, not because of over spending.
"The only short-term answer to long-range problem is some kind of tax revenue," Itzen said. "It's been put off for all these decades."
November's tax measure lost by a much larger margin than did a similar - and higher levy rate - one in May. But, as Commissioner Susan Brown pointed out last week, people aren't averse to being taxed - as they proved in Port Orford and Gold Beach for police services and construction of a new hospital. But county operations apparently held a lower priority in their minds.
"There are still some folks out there who are skeptical; after awhile, you can become jaded about every form of government," Itzen said. "But our county government is a lean machine. Part of the difficulty is to continue to win the confidence of voters who (don't believe in) the ability of any form of government to handle money effectively."
Another option the county will consider this week is whether to pursue yet another property tax levy measure in March or May.
Or, they could give up completely and ask for state assistance as is now permitted under House Bill 3453, signed into law this summer.
"That would be a different ballgame," Itzen said. "They don't look at things the same way we do. They might think six (sheriff's) officers is adequate - they might think it's 12. That'll have big implications.
"I think most people understand that we've reached the bottom," Itzen said. "And I don't know what the solution will be. "I'm still confident we can craft our own solution. It's going to be a really interesting time."