Governor: Tax levy needs to be passed

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer May 17, 2013 09:15 pm

Curry County residents should approve the public safety levy on the May 21 ballot, Gov. John Kitzhaber said in a statement released this week.

Kitzhaber also said county and city leaders need to be unified in getting the county’s financial house in order, and that House Bill 3453 will be approved and serve as a contingency plan if the levy fails.

Kitzhaber felt the need to clarify his position following a meeting he had with mayors and city managers of Curry County cities to discuss the levy and HB 3453. Officials at the governor’s office say a press release penned by Brookings City Manager Gary Milliman and sent to the Curry Coastal Pilot didn’t tell the whole story regarding what happened at the meeting.

“It didn’t capture the things the governor said to them,” said Greg Wolf, intergovernmental and regional solutions director for Gov. John Kitzhaber. “It was more what they said to the governor.”

Gold Beach City Administrator Jodi Fritts said, “They would prefer the elected officials, both the county and the cities, work on a solution that’s going to help us. They have their own fish to fry. They care about Curry County. They want to ensure Curry County is viable, but they also recognize we have our own leaders, and they want us to solve the problem ourselves.”

Port Orford Mayor Jim Auborn said,  “(Gold Beach Mayor) Karl Popoff and I both told them that we reluctantly voted for 8-71 and stood ready to work with the county and the state if it passes or not. In case it does not pass, we are ready to work with the county on a solution that we can all participate in drafting and enthusiastically support.”

Fritts added, “We left feeling like the governor gave us a firm talking-to. He wants us to work out our problems together. We’ve got to put our differences aside and work together — we have to. We have to quit calling each other names on both sides and sit down and work together. That message was sent very strongly.

“I’m the only mom in the room,” Fritts added. “I know a spanking when I hear it.”

The (whole) message

Wolf said the governor’s main gist was that he wants all officials in Curry County to back the levy proposal.

“It gets more complicated if you try to come back after a defeat,” Wolf said. “People may have disagreements about some elements, but you can’t let the ‘perfect’ be the enemy of the ‘good.’ It’s a good solid levy proposal and the governor wanted to encourage them to support it. And he’d love to see the problem solved locally — that was his main message. This is not a job he relishes.”

House Bill 3453 would establish a mechanism by which the state can assist counties in public safety emergencies get back on their fiscal feet. Initially, it would have allowed the governor to “take over” the county in question and staff it to what the state deems adequate — even through using city resources to provide public safety.

To pay for those services and staffing levels, the bill originally proposed collecting property tax revenue and taking what it needs for reimbursement. That concerned the numerous special districts throughout the county, many of which make do on small budgets anyway.

But a few major amendments made to it this month have made it more palatable to many governmental leaders in Curry County, and that was noted in Milliman’s press release.

Those changes would, if approved, limit the time the state could oversee county operations to 18 months, require county and city approval before any consolidation of services were to occur within that time and half of its costs reimbursed through an income tax surcharge. The other half would be paid for by the state’s emergency funds.

An income tax surcharge rate would be determined by the needs of each county — Jackson and Josephine counties are facing the same challenges and also have property tax levies on their May 21 ballots — and existing tax rates. Each county has its own shortfalls and needs, making it nearly impossible to determine what the final costs would be, Wolf added.

The surcharge issue is “pretty well settled,” he said, adding that the governor is in favor of it.

Brookings city councilors did not favor that original legislation but, according to Milliman’s press release, the amendments make it more palatable.

“They’re working hard on it,” Wolf said of the bill. “The governor and (Rep. Bruce) Hanna want to have the mechanism available when a county falls below an adequate level of public safety. This is designed to do that. The details are still being worked out, but I think that bill will pass.”