Proposed county sales tax scrapped

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer June 28, 2013 06:36 pm

The 3 percent sales tax proposed to fund law enforcement in Curry County has been scrapped — for now. 

County commissioners Wednesday afternoon agreed they needed more time to collect input and educate the voters before placing any question on a September ballot. They meet again Wednesday to again discuss options to salvage the long-term county financial situation.

The sales tax idea was presented two weeks ago after voters rejected a property tax increase on the May 21 ballot. The commissioners had until yesterday at 5 p.m. to craft a ballot title to meet state deadlines to get it on a September ballot.

The property tax increase would have brought an estimated $4.5 million to county coffers to pay for public safety; the sales tax was predicted to garner $5.7 million in its first year. Commissioners approved a $54 million budget — of which all but $2.1 million is primarily dedicated to collecting revenue on behalf of the county’s numerous special districts.

 The remaining $2.1 million is “discretionary” money in the general fund and pays for the sheriff’s office, a jail, the clerk’s and elections office and other county functions.

Setting the sales tax idea aside doesn’t mean it is dead, however.

Commissioners now have plenty of time, they say, to craft an idea for a new revenue flow that will be palatable to voters. It could include that sales tax, or a new idea presented by Commissioner David Brock Smith that would spread the burden with both a property and sales tax.

A crowd of citizens spilled into the hallway from the commissioner’s meeting room to express their opposition to the proposal — and almost all comments were met with applause.

Those who spoke cited how the county could be perceived as the only county in the state with such a tax, what it might do to businesses, how Californians’ behavior might change because of its implementation and the expense of setting it up and administering it.

“I did vote for the property tax,” said Charlene Enid of Gold Beach. “And I’d support an income tax increase. But a sales tax is completely the wrong way to go.”

“I do not come here with the timidity I did last time,” said Brian Rush of Brookings. “I come with fire in my belly and passion on my tongue. And if I offend, I do not apologize; I do not care.”

“It seems like you’re throwing ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks,” Rush said. “And Mr. Smith has yet another idea. Why constantly penalize those who have worked hard, created some success? Why live off the grace of the taxpayer?”

Mark Hollinger, a Gold Beach resident who served on the citizens committee, said that group knew commissioners would have to make tough decisions when it presented them with their 19 recommendations to increase revenue.

“We said any decision had to be mixed with other ideas,” he said. “The people will clearly pay something, but only if (different ideas) are thought of together and tough decisions are made.”

Among those ideas were getting more aggressive in union negotiations, addressing duplicity in employee health insurance plans and consolidating the two 911 systems in the county. 

Itzen explained that the county recently finished union negotiations that outline there will be no cost of living increases or advancements. Also, with the spinoff of various county departments to nonprofit agencies, the county has dramatically reduced the number of union employees. Health insurance and retirement benefits, however, are dictated by the state.

“I probably know as well as anyone what you’re going through,” former County Commissioner Georgia Nowlin, told the board. “But I cannot, and will not, support a county-only sales tax. Looking at the proposal, I don’t see any upside to it. With a sales tax there are no allies, except maybe those who think the tourists will pay for it all. I believe this tax measure will go up in flames.”

Commissioner Susan Brown continued her insistence that it is too early to put any question on a September ballot, and that the board needs more citizen input.

“I have spent the past 12 days trying to get on board with this, and I can’t,” she said. “It’s not the right way to go. I will not support placing this measure on the ballot.”

County Commissioner David Brock Smith said he is wary of putting a question on the November ballot, as it would be in competition with another tax measure regarding Port Orford’s levy funding law enforcement.

That property tax is set to expire, and voters need to approve an extension to keep the police department in their city.

Commissioners were ready to hold a second public hearing that day about the proposal to get the question on a fall ballot.

Commissioner David Itzen said the comments were “impressive” and “persuasive,” and that past county boards knew the finances of the county were about to unravel.

“The dangers of the economic situation were very clear,” he said. “The problems should’ve been recognized by any county commissioner sitting here — it’s not rocket science.

“We’re facing a revenue shortage. The amount of timber money we’ve lost is so tremendous, not even economic development can make up the difference. The only answer to our problem is a tax measure to provide a solution.”

“There are no more places to cut,” Smith said, in answer to comments about fiscal fat in the county budget. “If we start taking away anything else, we’ll lose whole departments and grant funds that keep them whole at the moment. But any idea you have, I am open to it.”

“These are some of the hard things the citizens are asking us to examine and do,” Brown said. “If the citizens want us to respond to what they need, we need to be responsive to that.”