Editor's Note: The following is the second installment of The Pilot's continuing coverage of the community discussion concerning special districts. Join the conversation, post your comments on this story at currypilot.com.
Tensions were high. But most of the 40-some people in the room were passionate in their agreement - in particular, about the tone the dialogue was taking - during a second meeting of the day about special tax districts.
The meeting was held at the Chetco Community Library directly following a Dec. 9 educational meeting held by the Curry County commissioners.
“I was happy to see there is extremely strong support in Curry County for libraries,” Chetco Community Library director Julie Retherford said regarding the forum.
“Most people in attendance appeared to understand why Commissioner Paasch is looking closely at special districts, but several expressed concern that his actions have felt adversarial.”
Paasch has questioned why the library’s financial budget has $2.4 million in unappropriated funds for fiscal year 2018-19.
The monies are held in a restricted fund for library improvement, said Retherford. The library’s current building, completed in 1993, needs a new roof, new carpet, parking lot paving and HVAC repairs, not to mention that they are “out of room,” said Retherford.
“We answer to you guys,” she said. “Our books are audited annually and open for review.”
Chetco Community Library board chair Patricia Piper explained how library roles in the community have changed, now offering more online and digital services in addition to the traditional bound books. “Commissioner Paasch doesn’t seem to think we are busy enough,” Piper said.
“I’m trying to not be in an adversarial position with the county commissioners, because they have a tough job,” Piper said. “But some of the things you need to know is, I’m an elected official. You guys elected me to be on the board of directors, and I have been doing it for a heck of a long time…
“The commissioners are voted in. If you don’t like something a commissioner is doing, that’s how we’re going to resolve it. But we should try really hard to work together.”
Piper noted that while the library has taken the total amount of tax dollars available to them in the last couple of years, they also gave the county a break for “five to six years.”
Frank Stratton, executive director of the Special Districts Association of Oregon, had given a presentation at the previous meeting and affirmed that the library can voluntarily reduce its tax rate but “It must be in the best interest of the tax district.”
Commissioner Paasch submitted a question about whether mergers or consolidations were common. Stratton answered that it wasn’t extremely common, other than with fire districts.
“Consolidations and mergers are interesting to consider,” Curry Public Library director Jeremy Skinner said. “We do work together, we work together a lot, the five libraries in Curry County. We voluntarily do a lot of things to provide efficiencies.
“Usually when you are talking about consolidation or merger, you are looking at trying to save on admin,” he said. “It would be about what we’re paying now.”
Skinner said that with a consolidation or merger, the new structure would have an executive with a top-level salary, and branch managers at each library.
Stratton pointed out that in a merger, all of the tax rates for each district and the assessed values would be averaged together to come up with a new rate for all of the districts. Currently, rates range from a low of 4.26% in Brookings to 7.7% in Langlois, with Gold Beach at 6.6%.
“The total amount of tax dollars collected remains the same,” Stratton said, “it’s just distributed differently. And that’s the complicating factor for a merger. People in one district would be paying more than they used to, and people in other districts would be paying less.
“If there are large discrepancies, it would be hard to get by the voters, because it would have to be approved in an election.”
Messages and Messengers
Brookings resident Connie Hunter talked about the importance of messaging. “Anchor institutions have missions, and of course libraries are anchor institutions, as are our colleges.” Hunter said.
“It’s not unusual to see a conflict of roles between the county and special districts, but it’s important to have conversations around those differences of roles… Tension rises between groups when there are just differences in roles.
“The county’s role is different than a special district’s role. So a county requesting to reevaluate tax rates in a general way, and to look at the special districts and whether those tax rates still make sense, especially for those that have been around for a while … is Paasch wanting to make sure we’re getting a return on our investment, a bang for our tax dollars…
“So, the I think the question about having so much money in reserve at the library - and I really appreciated the fact you brought up project budgets that are going to used against the district reserve, and answering what’s going to be done with that money - is hugely important.
“Basically, the point of view when I had this conversation with Commissioner Paasch this week is that tax dollars sitting around in a bank account and not being planned to be used - if you are accumulating a lot of reserve, and you don’t have plans for that money - that might be an indicator your tax rates are too high.
“That’s all this is about. Exploratory conversations are a jumping-off point. Having this conversation is really important.
“Fiscal responsibility and cost savings and return on investment are huge…. It’s a call to action and conversations that need to happen. It’s not about (being) adversarial,” said Hunter.
Douglas Bunn, executive dean at Southwestern Oregon Community College’s Brookings campus, had drawn criticism for certain of his comments. “I think this has gone beyond the point of ‘exploratory,’” said Bunn. “These are not comments coming out, ‘Well, let’s take a look.’
“Your special district is under attack, as is our community college district. There are serious problems in terms of revenue generation at the county level, and I appreciate that, and I would hope that there are solutions. But I think each of these districts, including the community college, decide how to fund.
“And I agree with (County Commissioner) Sue Gold, that if we need to make some changes, each of those districts needs to address their own house.”
Paasch previously had questioned why only $850,000 is spent on the Brookings campus out of the $2.22 million in taxes collected for the college from Curry County taxpayers.
Former Curry County Commissioner Georgia Nowlin responded with the most colorful comment about Commissioner Paasch’s actions, “If you pee on my shoes, don’t tell me it’s raining.”
She recommended that commissioners avoid going into territories that are not in their purview, and instead work with special districts as partners.
Gold Beach resident Beth Barker Hidalgo summed up the problem as she saw it: “If respectful dialogue was the goal in the beginning of this process, the path was wrong.
“The path to get where we are today, look at the outcome. We are all concerned about the viability of our districts that we, the voters, have put in place. It can’t be said enough.
“Just step back and take a look at some of the misinformation that has been shared out in the community. That is not how we go about having respectful and considerate dialogue.
“It is responsible for us to take a look at our systems, now and again, and see, ‘Are they working efficiently and effectively at meeting our community needs?’
“We can start that process around the table respectfully. That’s how you have exploratory dialogue.”
“We have the job of accountability to the citizens of the county,” declared Paasch in a separate interview. “Our special districts should also want to be accountable and have to show their continued need for resources.
“The taxpayers of the county voted these districts in decades ago. Don’t you think it is time we look at them to make sure they are still what we want and that they’re doing as they were intended?”
“We don’t oversee the special districts, their individual boards do,” said Julie Schmelzer, Curry County’s director of operations. “I do believe some districts could be more effective, and we can play a role in facilitating those discussions.
“There are great examples in northern California of how a consolidated fire district could work. Cemetery districts could be consolidated and share resources, but oftentimes there is a lot of emotional attachment to a certain cemetery, which makes consolidation difficult.
“I do feel consolidation would make ALL libraries better. Chetco and Gold Beach are the poster children for success.
“Chetco is very fortunate their district grew exponentially, resulting in more revenue than anticipated when the district was formed. But what about Port Orford, Langlois and Agness?
“If they were ‘branches,’ like some libraries have, of Chetco or Gold Beach, we could ensure proper access to library services for everyone in the county.
“School districts are another opportunity for consolidation,” Schmelzer said. “We are a small county and I do believe there are great advantages to funding one district office rather than three, and sharing teachers or other resources.
“In 2000, we had 2,400 children between 5 and 14 years of age. In 2010, we had 1,900.”
“John F. Kennedy commissioned a group to study special districts,” Paasch said. “They concluded that establishing special districts is an uneconomical means for providing services.
“Doing my job includes letting you know where your tax dollars go. So, if you see the need for change, we, the voter, can change it.”
To see where your tax dollars go, download the current year tax summary provided by the county assessor at www.co.curry.or.us/government/county_assessor/tax_rate_summaries.php.