County considers property tax

Written by Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer June 20, 2014 08:25 pm

Curry County commissioners plan to take an additional $400,000 from the road fund to pay for sheriff’s deputies as well as pose a property tax increase to voters on the September ballot.

The decision to take more funds from the road department was unanimous, but Commissioner Susan Brown tried to put an immediate stop to a September ballot measure, saying the board still needs to learn what citizens are willing to pay for before they “toss everything at the wall and see what sticks.”

“That’s a great idea, to put something on a ballot, since the things we put on the last two ballots worked so well,” Brown said, sarcastically referring to two other property measures voters defeated. “This is very frustrating. I saw this coming six months ago. We have time to think this out.”

The ballot question, whose wording must be approved at the commissioner’s meeting June 25 and submitted to the clerk’s office by 5 p.m. June 27, will ask voters for a property tax increase of 72 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation. Revenue generated from 68 cents of that would go exclusively to jail operations; the remaining 4 cents would be used to hire a full-time Veterans’ Services Officer.

Currently, Curry County pays the second lowest property tax in the state, at 59.9 cents per $1,000 valuation. Property here, however, is assessed the sixth highest. Between that and the floundering economy, residents have been reluctant to implement a tax of any sort.

A September ballot would be a special election, which will cost the county about $25,000 — money the county would have to take from one of its dwindling reserves.

“Hitting the wall”

Sheriff John Bishop told commissioners he doesn’t want to ask voters for a property tax increase in November, as that’s when people are receiving their tax bills. Instead, he prefers a May election.

But money is getting tighter with each passing month, said County Accountant Gary Short.

Bishop’s resources — his budget is the largest expense in the general fund — was further stretched this month when his Search and Rescue team responded to two water rescues, a judge requested four deputies for court security for a five-day, high-profile assault trial, then was called to Brookings last weekend to assist with an incident in which a man barricaded himself in a Heather Lane home and kept city, sheriff and state SWAT team members at bay threatening to kill anyone who entered the home.

“One man was able to (make law enforcement) spend thousands and thousands of dollars in local and state resources,” said Commissioner David Brock Smith. “We’re going to hit the wall in June (2015). You heard the sheriff say he will not be able to keep the jail open.”

Brown said she believes talk of the county spending every last penny of its money in the next year is inaccurate.

But Short said if the county spends all its working capital of $850,000, its general services, at $80,000, all vehicle replacement money, its cable TV franchise funds of $80,000, the self-insurance fund of about $90,000, the unemployment reserve fund of about $325,000 and the PERS reserve of $1.8 million, the county will be out of money by the end of next June.

“If, if, if,” he said. “Hitting the wall is a matter of perspective. If we want to spend all the money, it’s my opinion we’re out of money on July 1 (2015).”

Additionally, there is no legislation slated at either the state or federal levels addressing timber funds or a bailout for Oregon’s 18 O&C timber counties next year.

All three of Curry County’s mayors support a September election and the property tax commissioners are proposing.

Brown said she believes the board is setting itself up for another failure without first ascertaining what citizens are willing to pay for.

“This is very frustrating,” she said. “We keep putting things on the ballot when we don’t know what will be successful. Whatever we put on the ballot needs citizen support.”

Itzen argues that the county has run out of time.

“I don’t think she has a full grasp of the impact of hitting the wall, of what’s going to happen,” Itzen said Thursday. “What you don’t want to do is lose your good people. If your employees perceive there’s inadequate movement to solve the problem, they naturally protect themselves and their families. If we delay (the vote) to May, that’s almost a sure thing to happen.

“Furthermore, we’d have to use up the residual (money),” he said. “That would leave us flat on our backs, weakened to point where we can’t even get up.”

Brown notes that there is plenty of time to gather information from voters before deadlines for a May ballot. And she believes the failure of Curry County’s two property tax measures is because elected officials didn’t know what voters were willing to pay for when they crafted a ballot question without that input.

She cites a tax measure in Lane County that succeeded after leaders there extensively surveyed constituents to see what services they wanted and how much they were willing to pay for them. Their efforts paid off, and voters approved a small tax.

Curry County’s board is crafting a similar survey it plans to distribute to all voters later this summer.

“If we don’t know for sure, if we don’t know what direction we’re headed, we’re still throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what will stick,” Brown said. “We’re certainly not doing the Sheriff’s Office any favors, and we’re frustrating the taxpayers over and over and over again with tax measures they won’t vote for. We need to have their support.”

Another road fund hit

Itzen then suggested the board change the subject to one upon which they could all agree: taking money from the county road fund to pay for sheriff’s deputies on the roads in fiscal year 2014-2015, which begins July 1.

Commissioners will have taken a total of $2.05 million from road funds — permitted under a law passed last year that sunsets in 2016 — to hire more road deputies. Sheriff John Bishop said he doesn’t expect to spend all that money as he has had difficulty attracting applicants to a job people know might only last a year.

Itzen pointed out that even if a ballot measure succeeds, the county will still have to take funds from the road fund for deputies until the law allowing them to do so expires in January 2016 — or is extended by the legislature.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to prostrate the county to this point,” Itzen said of a county without money. “We’ll be too weak to get off the floor, and even if we do, the county would be too devastated to function.”