Voters to decide county tax levy

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer February 05, 2013 09:26 pm

Voters will have another chance this May to increase property taxes in a last-ditch attempt to solve the county’s fiscal problems.

County commissioners will meet tomorrow (Feb. 7) to decide what kind of tax levy will go on the ballot and how much that levy would be. The meeting will be held in the county annex building in Gold Beach at 1:30 p.m.

It will likely comprise wording for a five-year, temporary tax increase of $1.84 per $1,000 assessed valuation for those living in incorporated cities and $1.97 per $1,000 valuation for those living in unincorporated Curry County. The tentative dollar amounts are based on the respective uses of county services used.

The decision did not come easily.

The new board of commissioners has only been seated since Jan. 7, and has held six meetings to discuss methods to fix the budget. Surveys have been conducted, and numbers have been crunched. And department heads have pleaded with county commissioners over the past several months find money to save their services.

All commissioners admit they need to do something, and all agree they’ve run out of time.

“Commissioner (Susan) Brown campaigned that if she won the election, she would hit the ground running,” said Commissioner David Itzen. “It’s time to start running.”

The four options they have examined include a 2 percent or 3 percent county-wide sales tax, a tax levy to provide funding for a law enforcement district, another to create a five-year bridge to give commissioners time to find a stable means of revenue — including working toward formation of that district — and the “burn the county down” option: do nothing.

“This whole budget process has consumed my first month as a commissioner,” said Commissioner David Brock Smith. “I have done nothing but work on these numbers — and they are much worse than I could ever have possibly expected.”

Itzen and Smith Monday agreed they prefer the five-year bridge levy, while Brown again adamantly said she would not support something that is not a permanent fix, such as the creation of a district that she prefers.

A law enforcement district would work much in the manner other special districts do. Law enforcement would be removed from the county’s general fund and operate off its own tax levy that would provide it a steady revenue stream. Putting a tax levy referendum on the November ballot would give commissioners time to create the district, Brown said.

Bishop said it takes about two years to get a district established, based on discussions he’s had with numerous other county sheriffs throughout the state. That would mean the county would be without county services for at least a year-and-a-half until money started to flow in — and then they’d be scrambling to reinstate services and personnel and at a much higher cost than keeping services and employees in place.

Brown said she’s talked with various attorneys who said a district can be established in six months — in time for voters to approve a November levy supporting it. Yet, if commissioners were to wait until November to put something on the ballot, the county would lose all revenue that would ordinarily be garnered between July 1, the beginning of the fiscal year, and November.

“I am not willing to wait until November,” Smith said Monday. “I don’t understand why we can’t build a bridge to get to the district. Why?”

“It (the five-year levy) is not a long-term solution,” Brown answered. “It only takes two commissioners to get it on the ballot, and if you do … I will keep my fingers crossed and hope it passes. But I will not support it.”

Itzen and Smith tried to convince Brown otherwise, but she was resolute.

If voters approve a five-year bridge levy, tax revenue would continue to flow into county coffers. 

But Brown doesn’t want to have to go to the citizens a second time — either to continue the five-year bridge or ask for funding for a law enforcement district. Ideally, Itzen said, by then, new economic development will be in place and tax would sunset.

“This is an emergency for Curry County,” he said. “But I firmly believe we don’t have the time to put together a taxing district together in the time we have.”

If voters don’t approve a tax referendum, the county will be forced to work with a $2.1 million budget beginning July 1, which will involve laying off 65 more employees, closing the jail and ending most county services.

 This fiscal year’s operating budget, which ends June 30, was $3.6 million, with law enforcement spending the bulk of it. Bishop operates his department with four patrol officers, who often end up filling in at the communications facility or on jail duty. County roads are no longer patrolled 24/7.

Bishop is far from the only one being affected.

Ken Dukek, director of the juvenile department, has one employee to oversee 65 percent of its case load — 26 youth — while he handles intake and the “informal” cases that don’t go through the courts.

“Theft, shoplifting, harassment; we just don’t have resources to deal with those things, and sometimes that results in worse things,” he said. “We can only handle what we can handle.”

When that department was fully funded, the percent of recidivism — defined as three crimes after the first time a youth comes in contact with the legal system — dropped to 2 percent, the lowest in the state. Now, it’s up to 9 percent, Dukek said, and he expects that to increase to 11 or 12 percent.

And the sheriff’s office was just hit with another dilemma after failing — again — its fire inspection at the jail.

It’s been written up for numerous violations in the every-other-year inspections since 2004, Bishop noted, and this time, it’s for not having a fire suppression system. Such a system costs about $100,000.

“It is what it is; we just have to accept it,” he said. “We either get funding or we won’t even have what we have.”

Bishop emphasized the importance of the three commissioners working in unison.

“We’ve all got to come together on this or none of it will work,” he said. “You three have to come together. Susan Brown has to come on board with the levy, or you have to come on board with a district. You run a car in the red line so long, it’ll break. We’ve been in the red line for a long time. And if the only funding we get is where we are now ($2.1 million), we will break.”