City says county tax levy flawed
Written by Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer   
March 26, 2013 09:21 pm

The Brookings City Council and it’s manager think the county’s Public Safety Levy on the May 21 ballot is seriously flawed and propose several alternatives they believe are in the best interest of both city and county taxpayers.

“The measure is flawed in two ways: It doesn’t provide a credit to the public safety budget from the general fund budget. Secondly, the formula for the distribution of the tax between incorporated and unincorporated areas are based on arbitrary assumptions — it doesn’t take into full consideration the services provided by the city’s existing police department.”

At its meeting Monday night, councilors agreed to six motions presented by Milliman for county commissioners to consider, ranging from a different tax levy proposal for the November ballot to signing letters with other Curry County cities in opposition to a House Bill that could change the way local government is run.

The city will present its proposals to the county as a means to clarify it’s position. The city has no authority to implement the proposals itself.

“The city’s charge is to provide information to its citizens on what would be the best course of action: to provide them with adequate health and safety services and appropriate way to pay for such services,” Milliman said.

“Ultimately, it will be up to the county and voters to decide,” he said.

On Monday night, Mayor Ron Hedenskog said county commissioners did not involve the cities or Sheriff John Bishop in its evaluation to determine what a fair tax levy would be to augment county coffers in light of federal funding decreases from O&C lands.

Brookings officials didn’t even receive notification that the levy had been approved by county commissioners — and then, through the cities of Port Orford and Gold Beach — until the day of its approval, Hedenskog said.

The levy on the May 21 ballot asks for an property tax increase of $1.97 per $1,000 assessed value for those in unincorporated Curry County and $1.84 for those in cities.

City councilors in Brookings believe the premise for these figures is “fundamentally flawed,” and began work on alternate ideas late in the game because they thought the county was addressing its own problems and cities wouldn’t be adversely affected.

“This is not a matter of telling someone how to do their job,” said Councilor Jake Pieper. “But it’s been pointed out to me that you don’t say ‘no’ and offer no alternatives.”

City councilors say if the county had notified the cities it was working on such a budget question, the two could have worked together to find something more palatable — and believable — to voters.

The major “flaw” in the county’s analysis, said Milliman, is in the $2.1 million budget — what the county will reap in property tax revenue under current tax rates and assuming the May levy fails.

In that budget, more than $800,000 in the county general fund is dedicated to public safety, but legally allowed to be spent at the county’s discretion.

But that same amount is also allocated to public safety in the revenue the county will collect if the ballot measure passes, and Milliman wants to know where the $800,000 in the general fund would then be spent if the tax levy passes.

If draft budgets are any indication, he said, it appears those funds will go to building maintenance, hiring a veterans services officer and increasing the commissioners office budget by $100,000 — all non-public-safety functions.

“They are not bridging the gap with the public safety levy, they are making the gap bigger,” Milliman said.

Nearly 18 months ago, Milliman sat on the the Curry County Citizens Committee (CCCC), tasked with coming up with possible solutions to the county’s looming financial crisis.

“In their (CCCC) final report, it made 19 recommendations for restructuring county government and addressing the county fiscal crisis,” Milliman wrote in a report presented to the city council Monday. “The only recommendation that has been pursued is the placement of a property tax levy on the May ballot.

Milliman said the city waited until now to present alternatives to the county because he and the council had faith that county officials would act on the CCCC’s recommendation in a timely manner. 

“Not wishing to interfere in county government internal affairs, the city did not take a position on any of the recommendations,” he wrote in his report. “However, with the passage of time and the threat of state legislation that would negatively impact the city government, the city council may wish to become more involved in providing leadership in this matter.”

And because county commissioners failed to show a united front to voters on the issue, Milliman feels the council must protect the city’s own interests before the state comes in under the terms of House Bill 3453, currently in committee.

That bill would allow the state to restaff county government to what it believes are adequate levels; require the consolidation of some city and county services, notably law enforcement — and implement an income tax to pay for the costs of doing it all.

“Stranger things have happened,” said Councilor Brent Hodges, regarding the likelihood of House Bill 3453, in particular, passing. “We’d better move on this quickly.”

No one is sure how all that would play out, but county commissioners have repeatedly said Curry County would merely serve as a test case, being a smaller county, for larger counties facing similar financial disasters.

“Things that equate to martial law take time before they’re put into effect,” Pieper said. “I see this is a gross violation of local liberty and sovereignty. This is completely unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution and the Oregon State Constitution. To have this unilaterally imposed on people is complete tyranny.”

“Not all the aspects are bad,” Hedenskog said. “Maybe the governor could help solve this problem. But it turns an awful lot of authority to the county commissioners and that’s not OK with me.”