County taking its time on budget

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer May 24, 2013 07:11 pm

Curry County voters rejected a five-year public safety levy Tuesday, which would have raised about $4.5 million in the first year, leaving county officials looking at how to fund the jail, parole programs, 911 dispatch and other county functions with a $2.1 million budget.

However, the three county commissioners, don’t plan to address the 2013-2014 budget until almost mid-June.

The fiscal year starts July 1.

Commissioner David Brock Smith said the delay is because budget committee member John Spicer is on vacation. Commissioner David Itzen said part of the reason is because they’d like to see what the state has in mind to solve Curry County’s fiscal situation.

“There’s just too many floating pieces,” Itzen said of the delay. “We need a little more time to consider the impacts of this vote and evaluate what the legislature’s next move is.”

Commissioner Susan Brown said in an email, “The commissioners have already done all the budget workshops, so the 2013-2014 budget has been prepared. On June 11 we will seek additional input or changes. The budget will then be adopted later in the month of June.”

Budget committee members have said previously that creating a workable budget with $2.1 million is impossible.

The county asked voters to approve the levy in an effort to fill a gap in the county’s budget from declining federal timber subsidies. A similar measure went down in neighboring Josephine County.

After election returns Tuesday night, state officials expressed their disappointment.

“I know the governor is disappointed to hear these results,” said Greg Wolf, intergovernmental and regional solutions director with the governor’s office.

“It’s a very different situation, a multi-faceted problem. It reinforces the governor’s resolve to ensure we have a legislative mechanism in place to deal with public safety emergencies statewide,” Wolf said.

That mechanism could come in the form of House Bill 3453, which would allow the state to amass city and county resources, particularly in the public safety realm, staff other county departments to “adequate” levels and recoup its costs through revenue generated for special districts.

Amendments submitted by the League of Oregon Cities would require the governor to craft intergovernmental agreements between cities and the county to share resources as the state restores the county’s departmental infrastructure, limit state participation to 18 months to give county officials time to develop a permanent financing structure to fund public safety, and recoup half its costs through an income tax surcharge. The other half would be paid for by the state’s emergency fund, Wolf said.

Local officials came out against the original bill, but say if the amendments are included, it could be much more palatable for all involved.

House Bill

If it is approved by July 1 when the Legislative session ends, HB 3453 could immediately affect Curry and Josephine counties, whose voters both rejected property tax levies for law enforcement. Currently, the bill and amendments proposed by the League of Oregon Cities are in the House Rules Committee awaiting further discussion.

Curry County’s vote went down 56.2 to 43.7 percent; in Josephine County, the margin was much closer, at 51 to 49 percent.

Wolf said the state needs such a mechanism in place to address this heretofore unprecedented crisis anyway.

“We’ve got about a month-and-a-half to pass any kind of legislation,” Wolf said. “The governor wants to work on all perspectives of this: forest management, making it more possible for us to harvest sustainably, and finding ways to deal with these emergency situations that are created because of it.”

Locally, county officials are anxious to see what the legislature and governor will propose.

“We did set aside money in the budget (about $25,000) for a special election in September,” Smith noted. “But you have to have a double majority (participation of 50 percent of registered voters and a simple majority of votes for the proposal).

“And a November election is too late,” he continued. “We’re using all the reserves we have to get a funding solution through for next year. And any funding from a November election wouldn’t come in (to county coffers) until November 2014.

Wolf said he believes HB 3453 has the blessing of the governor and that it will pass before July 1, but exactly when is anyone’s guess, he said.

“There is no question in my mind the state will pass that,” said Commissioner David Itzen. “But that still that shouldn’t stop us from moving toward a Curry County solution.”

Another bill, also awaiting hearing the House Rules Committee, is HB 2206. It would let the state take over some of the county’s duties, including tax collection, election-related obligations, veteran’s services, and building inspections.

“Either you move legislation like this or it would be a little like watching someone’s boat sink and not throwing them a lifeline — just stepping back and getting out of the wake,” said Rep. Bruce Hanna, who helped craft the bill. “And I don’t think that’s responsible.”

Local fix

If HB 3453 weren’t in the mix of possible solutions, the county would have to live with its $2.1 million budget — something many have said it should have been doing for years.

The Oregon Kitchen Table project indicated citizens were aware of the dire financial straits facing the county, and were more likely to approve of a property tax measure than other options.

Tuesday night proved that wrong — again.

Commissioner Susan Brown has formed a group that meets twice a month to discuss ideas. From that could re-emerge many of the 19 ideas first proposed by a citizens committee last year. None of those were aggressively pursued, detractors and committee members noted — except the property tax.

And voters are going to have to make a decision again in a relatively short time. If the state intercedes with county operations, it will help craft some kind of means by which county revenue can be secure.

Whether the state works with Brown’s citizens committee or takes the issues on itself is unknown.

Other solutions could entail another property tax to permanently fund a law enforcement district, which all commissioners have agreed might be best.

Or, perhaps a sales or income tax, or creating a new form of county government, selling county assets or increasing fees for various services. Or perhaps commissioners will take a look at Lane County’s measure, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters the same night, and that featured more jail and juvenile beds at a tax rate almost four times smaller than that asked of Curry County voters.

County commissioners say they’re determined, this time around.

“I will not allow Curry County to fall into what has happened to Josephine County,” Smith said. “We cannot allow Southern Oregon to fall into lawlessness. Whatever help the state, the governor’s office and the legislature can lend us is what I’ll be working on.”

“We face some real serious questions to consider,” Itzen added. “There will be some interesting discussions to follow this.”