Curry County’s Citizen Revenue Task Force is researching other ways the cash-strapped county might create sustainable revenue sources, including a tax on food eaten at restaurants, a regional proposal headed by Josephine County to tax pot growers — and even the idea of a toll booth at the Oregon-California border.
The county and 17 other timber counties in the state have fallen victim to massive reductions in timber receipts, which they relied on for the bulk of their general fund dollars to operate county government. Curry County has been forced to slash expenditures and spin-off departments to nonprofit organizations.
“I think all citizens realize we’ve got to do something; we need everyone to understand we’ve got to pay our bills,” said County Commissioner Chris Paasch. “I’ve suggested a $1 per axle toll on that southern border. These are all ideas to put out there, to collaborate and come up with something.”
He said he didn’t think all the Del Norte County residents who stock up on hundreds of dollars of groceries and gas at Fred Meyer would think twice about paying a toll to enter Curry County. Paasch added locals would get a pass to travel freely between the two states.
A toll at the border might not garner any revenue for the county, however, because U.S. 101 is a federal highway and any revenue derived from drivers using it would likely be legally limited to paying for road maintenance.
“They laugh at a toll booth at the border,” interjected Commissioner Court Boice. “They laugh at horses in the wilderness, eating foliage that feeds fires. If we don’t think outside the box, it’ll be status quo. I’m taking another look at your toll.”
Task force Chair Carl King told county commissioners Wednesday the group is collecting figures from the assessor and sheriff’s office to determine what they need to “properly — not adequately” — function, King said. Other departments weren’t asked to submit figures as they are functioning well, he added.
Those figures indicate Curry County needs an additional $3 million to $3.5 million in its general fund for the county assessor’s and sheriff’s offices.
“We need some sort of revenue that goes up as costs go up,” he said. “Property taxes haven’t provided that under the state system.”
Curry County collects the least amount of property tax — $0.599 per $1,000 assessed valuation — of any other county in the state.
King also said he has heard people opine the task force is merely a facade to push commissioner agendas regarding taxes; he reiterated that’s not true.
“I’ve defended the citizens task force as an individual group,” King said of his dealings with people on social media. “There are those who have posted that we’re just another attempt by the board of commissioners to hide behind a citizen’s group to tell (the board) what they want to hear.
“That’s not what we’re doing,” he continued. “We’re making recommendations. If the BOC chooses to reject them, so be it.”
He added if commissioners want to take a different direction, they need to let the task force know.
Paasch said he disagreed with that assessment and the board wants to hear new ideas.
“I don’t feel the citizens feel we’ve created (the task force) as a cushion for the board,” Paasch said. “The more ideas and revenue sources you can bring me, I’d love the hear them — but nothing that burdens the (property) taxpayers and the taxpayers only. As long as (the burden is shared) equally with those who use the resources of the county.”
Commissioner Sue Gold noted citizens should be well aware of the county’s financial status.
“I agree — but not just a property tax,” she said. “I think this is an excellent opportunity for a TLT or restaurant tax.”
“We have to raise funds,” Paasch said, “or the governor’s going to step in and dissolve the county. Is that what we want? Everything we don’t investigate funnels us back to a property tax, and I will fight that tooth and nail. We need to look at the amount of money we can take in through tourism, and everybody wins.”
Gold noted a restaurant tax of 2 percent on Curry County’s $38.3 million in sales could generate $800,000 for the county. A 3 percent rate would collect $1.15 million, a 4 percent tax $1.53 million and a 5 percent tax $1.9 million.
“That’s not chump change,” she said.
The task force is still researching such a tax and hasn’t even decided if it will recommend one that taxes only restaurants or includes all prepared foods.