Sheriff proposes emergency declaration

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer February 05, 2013 09:24 pm

Sheriff John Bishop strongly suggested to county commissioners Monday that the county draw up a document to declare a public safety state of emergency in case a proposed tax levy increase in May fails.

On Thursday, Curry County Commissioners plan to draft a referendum to ask voters to approve a property tax increase to keep county services intact (see related story on this page). 

County Commissioners David Brock Smith – who is proposing the tax measure – and David Itzen support that proposal, but Commissioner Susan Brown plans to vote against it, saying it is merely a temporary solution for a long-term problem.

Using those figures, crafted by Smith and Finance Director Gary Short, a tax levy would bring $4.52 million to county coffers and buy the county some time to develop more long-term, stable and permanent solutions to their fiscal crisis.

The dark shadow looming over all their heads, Bishop noted, is that the voters might not approve a tax levy increase. Numerous such measures have been soundly defeated in recent years.

Bishop said state officials need to get involved.

“We need to get the state down here,” Bishop told commissioners. “We need to get them on board with the budget. I can’t see where that can hurt. It is in their best interest to see us succeed. We’ve got to have them in the picture.”

Declaring a state of emergency, however, costs $80,000 to $100,000, money the county does not have to spare, Itzen said. He suggested instead they draw up the documentation and only declare a state of emergency to the state if a tax measure is defeated in May.

“The timing is right,” Bishop said of declaring a state of emergency immediately. “The Legislature is in session. Get the $80,000 dismissed. The state is not going to budge (and bail out the county). They have told us they’re not going to budge.”

If “the state comes in,” as it is often referred to in meetings, a group of people would evaluate where Curry County stands, analyze options, study opinions — everything the county has already done, Itzen said.

“It’s like a committee on steroids,” he said. “A huge group of people would come down at a huge expense, and we’ve already gone through this. We’ve spent years analyzing, economizing, cutting back and spinning off. We’ve done everything they could conceivably come up with.

“It’s just another committee, another committee, to study the issue. It’s not going to make up the 3 million bucks (shortfall the county faces).”

The idea of hiring a county manager has been mulled over — and nixed by voters.

“We tried that in 2008, and it went down like a stone,” Itzen said. “Coos County just attempted it, and it went down like a stone. The commissioner who advanced that was not reelected. And if we moved in that direction, it would save us about $10,000. (That idea) is merely an attempt to be a diversion to the task at hand, which is to change our revenue situation.”

He did say declaring a state of emergency could be necessary if a ballot measure fails in May.

“At that point, we’d be at the ‘burn the county down’ mode,” he said, referring to what commissioners call the situation they county would be in without tax revenue coming in. “Going over the cliff isn’t the best analogy. I prefer the iceberg one: You’re in a floe of bergs, you can see the big one, but there are still options to change direction of ship, even though it’s slow moving. The most critical turn will be the May ballot.

“We’re sustaining damage, we’re not providing protection one would like, we’re doing what we can, and we’ve been warning our citizens this is coming,” he added. “This is not a simple problem, and there is not a simple solution.”