What price county services?

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer April 01, 2014 08:41 pm

Curry County commissioners plan to follow in the successful footsteps of other counties and distribute a detailed survey asking citizens what they want in county services — and if they’re willing to pay for them.

The idea of a survey was discussed earlier last month when Commissioner Susan Brown pointed out that other counties in the same fiscal morass as Curry County had been able to get voter approval for public safety measures — once the elected leaders figured out what it was they were willing to pay for.

Curry County voters have rejected two property tax increases to pay for county services, notably for public service — the jail, juvenile services, the Sheriff’s Office and patrol — that use most of the general fund budget.

Sheriff John Bishop has since proposed putting on a ballot a request to raise property taxes by 68 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation to pay for the jail operations. Curry County pays the second-lowest property tax in Oregon, at 59 cents per $1,000 valuation.

Curry is also the first of Oregon’s 18 O&C counties facing a fiscal “abyss” since federal timber subsidies ended in 2012. Only Lane and Josephine counties have since been able to convince voters to approve a tax increase to keep jails open, and in the case of Lane County, it was only after an extensive survey showed elected officials what the voters would accept in a tax hike.

Brown said she believes most citizens are unaware how much that 59 cents gets them — and how insufficient it is. Part of any survey should include a chart showing the average homeowner — someone with a house assessed at $185,000 — the county average — how much they pay per month, per department.

“The average person thinks in light of their monthly bills,” she said. “Compare dinner for two, 40 bucks. A bottle of wine, $12, go to the movies, $15, $20. Compare that to the Sheriff’s Office, $5.21 a month, the Board of County Commissioners, at 46 cents, assessments and taxation, 87 cents, juvenile services 76 cents a month.”

Commissioner David Brock Smith agreed, adding that the figures need to be outlined showing how much of a homeowner’s tax bill goes to the county and how much goes to the county’s 40-plus special districts.

“They might get a $2,000 tax bill, and the county only gets 100 bucks,” he said. “We need to show them where the tax dollars go.”

Commissioners met in a work session late last month to discuss ideas about what should be included in a survey. They hope to have the surveys mailed this spring to give them time to finesse Bishop’s tax proposal and align it with the wishes of voters.

Brown distributed to her fellow commissioners ideas they might consider, asking open-ended questions about challenges facing the county today, people’s experience with dealings with sheriff’s officers and satisfaction of the level of county services provided.

Other questions she proposed in the draft — to which commissioners David Brock Smith and David Itzen will add in upcoming work sessions — ask respondents to rate each department and its services, whether they are willing to accept even more reductions in services and what kind of a tax they might be willing to support.

Some tax ideas that have been discussed include a transient lodging tax, gasoline tax, a fee to special districts for the county services in collecting their taxes, a cell phone fee and alcohol taxes.

Most of those would require approval from the state Legislature, however, as the revenue generated by those collected by the state are already dedicated to other uses. For example, gasoline taxes go to the state, and it would take a change in state law to allow a county to add the tax and use it for its general fund.

Brown has maintained from the day she took office that she feels it is of utmost importance to learn how citizens feel about everything the county does when dealing with the general fund budget. She has also insisted more public meetings be held to educate voters about issues — and get feedback regarding taxes and expenses.