Curry County officials say tax measure is only way

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer January 29, 2013 09:03 pm

County Commissioners finally agreed that a tax measure of some sort is the only thing that will bring Curry County out of the fiscal morass in which it stands.

Commissioner David Brock Smith has been proposing a five-year property tax increase that would be eliminated once commissioners determine how to fund the county long-term. 

Commissioner Susan Brown favors the creation of a special district for law enforcement in unincorporated Curry County and funded by a permanent property tax. 

Commissioner Dave Itzen is in favor of any tax measure.

“We’ve reached a milestone,” Itzen exclaimed. “We’ve got three commissioners to agree we need a tax measure. There’s just a little division about what kind. This is significant.”

Crucial to note in the semantics is that they haven’t agreed yet to put anything on the ballot, Smith said. And even if they had, they have yet to reach a consensus about what it would entail.

They face a March 2 deadline to get anything on the May ballot.

Finance Director Gary Short is working with Smith to determining the exact amount of tax per $1,000 assessed valuation will be needed to bring county services to 2007 levels. That proposal would merely serve as a “bridge” until economic development projects start generating revenue.

“This is so forest management plans, energy, marketing plans have time to come to fruition,” Smith said. “All these things take time, and time is what we don’t have.”

Short outlined what county services would consist of if county commissioners have to work with an assumed $1.4 million in property tax receipts and $700,000 in other funds – the amount of money the county will have beginning July 1 without a tax levy.

“There are all kinds of ramifications of implementing a budget like this,” said County Attorney Jerry Herbage. “And they’re are not going to be good.”

The county has already made drastic cuts.

Just two years ago, the county had 195 full-time employees (FTE) – about 216 people – Itzen said. Now, after attrition and departmental spinoffs, the county is down to 55 FTEs, including elected officials. Short declined to say how many more would have to be laid off in the $2.1 million budget scenario he presented.

There would be no jail; that alone costs $900,000 to operate at today’s inadequate level. Sheriff John Bishop would remain, as required by state law. He might have two deputies. There would be no 911 system, no support for the fair, no Veterans Services Department; the list goes on.

And the ensuing problems would be endless. Under the outlined $2.1 million budget, commissioners could either eliminate law enforcement, which takes up the bulk of the general fund, or get rid of county services on which so many residents depend.

That’s where it is up to voters.

Brown suggested that, in light of the fact that citizens have become jaded on all the scare tactics used in years past to get voters to approve a tax measure, that the board merely ask them once more – and live with the consequences if they vote it down.

The ramifications of that would be unacceptable, Itzen said.

“We built this (hypothetical) budget this way so the county can see what it would be like for the county – I won’t even say, ‘function’ – to exist,” Smith said. “We can move forward, cannibalize every penny until we have to lock the doors and throw the governor the keys. That’s something I’m not in favor of at all.”

For instance, if the county were to close the jail – whose substandard conditions are currently grandfathered in – it would have to find money to build a new jail when the economy improved. Considering the jail would have to be moved out of the tsunami zone and comply with current building standards, reinstating that service could run about $30 million.

If the jail were closed, there would be little reason to have deputies to enforce laws – even state laws that require someone be arrested in domestic violence and probation violation incidents – because there would be nowhere to put them.

The cost to transport criminals to Coos County’s jail would cost more than it costs today to house them, Herbage said.

The DA’s office would be comprised of the DA and an assistant – half of what DA Everett Dial has now. He would then have to triage cases.

Some county functions – building, planning and a few others – could operate on fees they charge – “eating what they kill,” the commissioners called it. The Sheriff’s Office substation in Harbor would close. There would be limited search and rescue or probation and parole operations.

Commissioners also wondered how liable the county could become due to a decreased law presence.

“If you have a burglar, you can hand him a citation,” Dial said. “You can’t arrest him because there’s no jail. Or you could drive him around in a circle and let him out … I don’t see how you wouldn’t have increased liability.”

“The biggest problem in this budget is the lack of public safety,” Smith noted. “But if we went the other route (only provide law enforcement), there wouldn’t be any money for the county to operate or do business.”

If voters were to turn down a tax proposal, they likely would have to experience the pain of a virtually nonexistent county operation before they’d be willing to do something about it, Brown said.

“Every citizen has heard this story over and over,” she said. “We have beaten citizens over the head about what will happen. We’ve had tax measure after tax measure. The public is not responsive to our continual pleas.”

“For a long time, we all believed the federal government would bail us out – because they have,” Itzen said. “That isn’t going to happen this time. That is over. We’re on our own. We’ve got to fix this ourselves.

“And I’m pretty optimistic. I think we have a real good chance of fixing this problem.”