Cities oppose house bill 3453

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer April 05, 2013 10:01 pm

The mayors and city councils of all three Curry County cities have signed a letter to Gov. John Kitzhaber expressing their opposition to a House bill that could let the state take control of specific county services if the May 21 public safety levy fails.

It is the first time in memory the three cities have agreed so adamantly on an issue, said Gold Beach Mayor Karl Popoff and Brookings Mayor Ron Hedenskog. Port Orford Mayor James Auborn also signed the letter.

“We are concerned that HB 3453 may be interpreted as authorizing the dissolution of City government or diverting City resources, without compensation, to provide services to other units of government,” states the letter, which was also addressed to Rep. Chris Garrett, chair of the House Rules Committee.

HB 3453 would only take effect – and then only if approved by the state Legislature – if the May 21 property tax ballot question loses. It would allow state officials to staff county offices to a level they believe is adequate – and bill Curry County residents for that service. 

Part of that work could include merging similar departments, such as public safety, into one department.

Billing a fiscally insolvent county could entail either implementing an income tax on its residents or taking a portion of the money it collects in taxes that are meant for special districts to pay for the services rendered.

The bill will likely prove moot if the property tax levy on the May 21 ballot is approved by voters.

Keeping it local

The city councils oppose the bill – even if it could very well be Curry County’s last shot at a financial fix – because residents would lose local control of its county operations.

“The cities of Curry County recognize the serious nature of the county fiscal crisis and stand ready to work with county and state officials to develop a course of action to address the current fiscal crisis and chart a course for the long-term fiscal and management stability of our county,” the letter reads.

However, it continues, the mayors are concerned that the bill might be interpreted as an authorization to dissolve city government or divert city resources, without compensation, to provide services to other units of government.

“We believe the three cities ... are well positioned to provide leadership and serve as partners in addressing these serious financial and management issues facing Curry County,” the letter reads. “It is in our mutual interest to have a fiscally stable and effectively managed county government.”

The mayors also requested the cities be included in future discussion of HB 3453 or other similar legislation.

Cities chime in

Hedenskog said he was unsure if the other city mayors would sign agree with his city’s assessment of HB 3453 – until they began discussing the county’s property tax levy in February. The levy, if approved, would increase property taxes by $1.97 per $1,000 assessed valuation for those in unincorporated Curry County and $1.84 per $1,000 for those living in cities.

The Brookings City Council said that disparity does not accurately reflect the percentage of county services used by city residents and responded by crafting and submitting six alternate suggestions to the county commissioners to consider.

Those suggestions, called “Plan B,” include changing its form of government, presenting a different tax levy in November and consolidating some public safety services to show state officials Curry County can solve its own problems.

Gold Beach City Council will see those propositions for the first time Monday.

The Citizens Committee had developed all those suggestions and more to the commissioners in 2011, but none were pursued. When the new commission was appointed in January, the county was facing immediate fiscal concerns – and had a small window in which to do anything.

The current board examined both sales and property taxes and opted for a measure to increase the property tax, believing that might be more palatable to residents.

“I don’t think there’s a snowball’s chance (the tax levy passing), so we’re looking at Plan B,” Hedenskog said of the six suggestions to the commission. “Let’s say there’s not a snowball’s chance. Then Plan B needs to be thought of and instituted.”

Hedenskog said he believes HB 3453 is a scare tactic to get voters to approve the property tax levy, and think the bill has little chance of getting through the Legislature.

“That’s how they’ve been using it,” he said. “They’re bullying their way through on this thing. They steamrolled over (County Commissioner) Susan (Brown), they steamrolled over the citizens, they’re steamrolling over the taxpayers.”

Mike Murphy, city manager of Port Orford, agreed.

“The way the bill is written, the state will forcibly confiscate our resources and feed them to the county,” he said. “The citizens voted a tax to support a police department. To take that and forcibly consolidate it with the county would be a grave disservice to the citizens. Why impair their ability to function and feed it into the vortex that is the county? To impair the three cities doesn’t make any sense.”

At this point, it seems the only thing keeping the state out of county affairs would be passage of the levy. Despite commissioners’ stated beliefs that voters will approve it, no city council has come out in favor – or opposition – to it.

Some have said the vacillation could be due to the lack of unity on behalf of the commissioners, as Brown not only voted against putting it on the ballot, but is vehemently opposed to it.

“The county commissioners are not unanimous on their own measure,” Murphy said.

He wonders if that infighting reflects frustration levels throughout the United States.

“It’s borne of frustration,” Murphy said. “The county wants a lot of money, the feds want more money, wages haven’t kept up, old people have less and less money; they’re freaking out.

“I have never seen people with the amount of venom and hate that is out there,” he added. “It’s all the factions. I understand it — I don’t know how to fix it, but I do understand. People are unhappy.”

Gold Beach Mayor Karl Popoff said he feels the same way. 

“The mess the commissioners inherited, that they stepped into. ... They’re doing an admirable job,” Popoff said. “But they are going to need a great deal of help. The cities have got to step up to the plate, be in unison. We don’t want the state come in and willy-nilly dictate to us.”

Popoff said he doesn’t think the levy will pass.

“I don’t care whatever it takes,” he said. “Law enforcement, the jail, the Sheriff’s Office are exceptionally important to this county. I think we have one more shot, and it’d better be a bare bones (budget) – only what the county needs to subsist on. A new direction needs to be taken.

“This is gut-wrenching for me,” Popoff added. “We’re all in this together. We want to save our county. If we don’t act together, we’re going to get chopped up.”