Two timber counties reject public safety levies
By JEFF BARNARD
Of the Associated Press
GRANTS PASS — Voters in two Oregon timber counties with the lowest property taxes in the state — Curry and Josephine — turned down tax increases Tuesday that would have funded law enforcement, but a jail levy passed in a third, Lane County.
The outcome puts Curry County, population 22,000, closer to going broke and a potential state takeover. Josephine County, population 83,000, is looking at further cuts that would leave just one sheriff's deputy on patrol and an even smaller jail to hold suspects awaiting trial.
Meanwhile, the Legislature is considering a bill that would allow the state to take over counties that go broke, and levy income taxes to pay for services.
All three counties saw big budget gaps after a federal safety net for timber counties known as the Secure Rural Schools Act expired.
“The commissioners are now going to have a very tough time,” said Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson.
He said he needs $645,000 a year from some other source to keep the status quo — three deputies on patrol and 100 jail beds. Without the money, he will be down to one patrol deputy and 60 jail beds.
In Curry County, David Brock Smith, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, said the current tax rate of 59 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation, the lowest in the state, plus other revenues only raises $2.1 million. Of that, the jail and 911 dispatch takes $1.5 million.
“You can't run the rest of the county on 600,000 bucks,” he said.
In Lane County, population 355,000, officials look forward to increasing the capacity of the jail and boosting youth services in about two months.
County Commissioner Sid Leiken said after surveying voters and consulting law enforcement professionals, they decided to focus on the jail, rather than trying to fund a range of services. They are working on a 10-year plan for funding the district attorney, sheriff's patrols, and other services.
“Does it solve everything within the system?” he said. “No. But it really deals with the immediate need.”
Leiken said about 5,000 inmates a year were being released for lack of space. One of them famously was arrested on a bank robbery charge within an hour of his release.
Unofficial results with 100 percent of the votes counted show a five-year levy in Curry County went down 56 percent to 44 percent. It initially would have raised $4 million a year.
Josephine County voters rejected a three-year levy to raise $9.1 million a year by 51 percent to 49 percent.
But in Lane County, voters approved a five-year levy raising $14.5 million the first year.
In the Legislature, the bill getting the most attention would allow the governor — with the consent of legislative leaders and a county's governing body — to impose a temporary income tax on residents of counties facing crises to help pay for public safety.
The state doesn't have other tools or money to support public safety on its own in struggling counties, said Greg Wolf, Gov. John Kitzhaber's director of regional solutions.
“It's not a job he relishes at all having to deal with these problems, but the state does have an interest in maintaining a network of public safety throughout the state,” Wolf said.
Rep. Bruce Hanna, a Roseburg Republican who has been a vocal advocate of relief for timber country, said the measure has “relatively good” prospects for success, but the only long-term solution is for Congress to ease restrictions on logging.
“We can't solve the problem because we're not the federal government,” Hanna said. “What we can do is provide a temporary level of relief and support. ...They're all temporary means. None of them are permanent.”
State officials are working with Oregon's congressional delegation to increase logging on the patchwork of federal forests known as the O&C lands, but the U.S. House and Senate have vast differences in their proposed solutions and neither has made much progress.
Associated Press writer Jonathan Cooper in Salem, Ore., contributed to this report.