Voters reject public safety levy

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer May 21, 2013 10:12 pm

 

What Sheriff John Bishop believes he’s facing after Tuesday’s defeat of a public safety property tax is hardly the stuff of childhood Wild, Wild West games.

Now, it’s the real thing.

 

 

As the initial, unofficial election results were announced, Bishop shook his head and sighed. Numerous thoughts were running through his head, he said, after voters defeated Measure 8-71 with a vote of 3,688 to 2,849 (56 percent to 44 percent).

According to Elections Clerk Reneé Kolan, almost 50 percent of Curry County’s 13,501 registered voters cast ballots in the hotly contested election. Only 300 votes were left to tally at press time Tuesday.

“I’m disappointed in the real small turnout,“ Bishop said. “It is what it is, and it’s going to get interesting.”

The special district elections were overshadowed by the highly controversial property tax measure that would have increased property taxes for public safety.

While Bishop is mandated to provide public safety to the citizens of the county, he has often pointed out to county commissioners that it is their job to find and allocate the money to him so he can do his job.

With the measure’s defeat, the county’s discretionary spending will be $2.1 million – its share of the $22.9 million it collects on behalf of all the special districts in the county.

“Now we need to get to work.” said Commissioner Susan Brown, the holdout against the measure on the commission board. “I think it’s an opportunity – a huge opportunity. We’ll sit with the citizens and see see what we can do. It’s all good.” 

Until recent years, the bulk of county services were paid for by timber revenue on O&C and BLM lands. But those federal dollars have ended, and past commission boards have failed to develop a method to replace those funds.

“It’s the toughest time in United States history – Oregon history; Curry County history – to  ask for any kind of tax increase,” Commissioner David Itzen said. “People are really hurting, unemployment is high, the forests are locked up. It’s a difficult time. We only have tough choices ahead of us, no easy choices. But we will continue to work to find a solution for Curry County’s problem.”

Details, however, are a big unknown, as commissioners have yet to begin talks on working under the constraints of that  $2.1 million budget.

“I don’t know,” Bishop said. “I might lose my open positions, but I don’t know.”

He hasn’t had any people resign – yet.

“I’ve had people who feel like resigning,” he said. “It’s going to hit morale. They work really hard. They see this doesn’t pass and they take it personally. I truly do not believe it’s a reflection of the Sheriff’s Office. We’ll keep our heads up and do what we can with what we’ve got and go from there.”

That’s not to say he likes it.

Throughout the past several months, Bishop has also related to the board his worst fears: criminals running rampant, no one available to respond to even the worst of crimes – and then, if an arrest is made, nowhere to put the perpetrator.

He’s spoken of the “Mexican Mafia,” insurance rates on homeowners and businesses increasing, the county’s liabilities and his obligations to maintain the safety and welfare of the citizens.

Tax measure 8-71 would have increased Curry County’s tax rate from 59.9 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation an additional $1.97 per $1,000 for those living in unincorporated Curry County and $1.84 per $1,000 for those living in the county’s three cities.

“It’s unfortunate that we were not able to inform the citizens well enough with regards to the importance of the levy,” said Commissioner David Brock Smith, by and large the measure’s biggest supporter. “And it would have been much easier to inform citizens if we’d had a unified board. The only organized opposition was the city of Brookings; I don’t know what their motives are for the opposition. Only time will tell.”

If the measure had passed, it would have provided the jail, Sheriff’s Office, juvenile department and district attorney’s office with $5.4 million to provide public safety. Currently, all those departments have been deemed to be operating at far less than inadequate levels. The tax increase was to fill that shortfall for five years, giving county commissioners time to craft a palatable tax measure to permanently fund a public safety special district.

County commissioners will meet June 11 to discuss the $2.1 million budget, which budget committee members have already said is impossible to work with. No one knows how much money will be specifically allocated to each department until the commissioners approve the budget; the fiscal year begins July 1.

That’s part of the reason budget talks won’t start until at least June 11, Itzen said.

“You just can’t operate on it ($2.1 million),” Itzen said. “I don’t know if it would be productive to go through that exercise again. We have to do it before the state budget deadline. My guess is the emergency legislation will take effect before that.”

The commissioners have several budget scenarios to consider, so no department head knows specifically how their offices – and staff – will be affected.

Bishop said in one budget hearing this year that his office – including the jail operations, deputy patrols, emergency services, parole and probation, juvenile detention services, Search & Rescue and other services – needs about twice the entire $2.1 million budget to function at even minimal service levels.

In all the budget scenarios is the chance the jail will have to close.

“They won’t put them (inmates) anywhere,” said Sheriff John Bishop. “No one’s going to jail.”

An average of 38 inmates are housed in the Curry County Jail each day and 10 jail deputies oversee them. No one knows what would happen with all of them if the jail closes – which Bishop doesn’t think commissioners will allow.

“I don’t think they’ll do that – I don’t think they can,” he said. “They ought to keep the jail open, but they could shut it all down. I hate this because I don’t know. I don’t have a clear picture of what they want to do.”

He knows what he’s seen, and what he’s been told.

Law enforcement officials in Josephine County – another county facing similar financial woes and a ballot measure yesterday – say problems are beginning to arise since voters there voted down a tax measure for law enforcement last year, Bishop said.

And Gold Beach Administrator Jodi Fritts doesn’t want that to occur in her community, she said.

“The jail is a critical facility to my city,” she said. “It’s going to affect my town because the courthouse is here. The bad guys are in this town. They have to ensure the jail stays operating and functioning properly.”

If the facility is closed, and if voters in the future opt to reopen it, an entirely new complex would have to be built because the existing jail is in the tsunami zone – which is no longer permitted – and is in violation of numerous codes that have been grandfathered in since it was built in 1962.

A new facility, which Bishop estimates would cost up to $30 million, would have to be built in compliance with building and jail codes. That doesn’t include the cost of land – wherever that might be – on which to build it.

Its relocation could also affect the courts, which need to be close by to ease the transport of inmates from jail to court.

The tax levy would have sunsetted in five years, with the understanding that will be enough time for county commissioners to develop a permanent fiscal solution for public safety.

The Sheriff’s Office consumes the lion’s share of the general fund, and all remaining money goes to the other state-mandated or -required departments. Some services under Bishop’s umbrella – Search & Rescue, parole and probation and marine patrol – are funded by the state and won’t be affected. 

Bishop said it’s difficult to plan without an established budget.

“I’ve gotten $1.2 (million), I’ve gotten $1.5 – I’ve gotten $800 (thousand),” he said of budget committee hypothetical scenarios. “I’ll assume I’ll have enough money to fund the jail, two patrol deputies and a civil deputy. I am unsure what they’ll do with 911.”

District Attorney Everett Dial said he doesn’t think his department will be affected too badly under any of the $2.1 million scenarios – but again, he doesn’t know what the commissioners will decide.

A house bill (HB 3453) currently being considered by the legislature and the governor will also come into play in coming weeks. The bill would allow the state to help the county restructure its services.