SALEM — The Oregon Legislature on Monday passed a bill to allow struggling timber counties to use measures other than voter-approved property taxes to pay for public safety.
The votes Monday were 22-7 in the Senate and 49-10 in the House. Gov. John Kitzhaber is expected to sign the bill.
The bill, HB 3453, would allow the governor to declare a public safety emergency after consulting with legislators and sheriffs and getting two different approvals from the county. Counties could impose an income tax, a tax on 911 services or other assessments. The state would bear half the costs.
"The state is now trying to provide a safety net for us to come up with a solution," Josephine County Commissioner Cherryl Walker said. "This is not the solution."
While passage of the bill gives counties the power to keep law enforcement going, even if voters won't pay for it, it is not a long-term solution to revenue problems that have been building for two decades. Rural counties that once depended on federal timber revenues have been struggling to pay for sheriff's patrols, jails and prosecutors since a federal safety net expired. Voters in the counties closest to going broke have refused to raise taxes to fill the gap.
Last week, the Legislature enacted another bill to help timber counties with elections, tax collection and veterans services.
Greg Wolf, the governor's director of intergovernmental affairs and regional solutions, said the governor will sign the bill but hopes he never has to use it.
"It's up to them," Wolf said of the counties. "If they do not request the declaration (of an emergency), it does not get made."
Officials in Curry and Josephine counties, the two closest to going broke, are in no hurry to use the powers since voters in both counties turned down tax increases last May to pay for law enforcement. Indeed, the bill has been nicknamed the "County Commissioner Recall Bill." While they still argue for an increase in federal logging levels to boost revenues, they recognize that is a longshot, and years away if it happens.
"I hope to never have to implement 3453 in Curry County," Commissioner David Brock Smith said. "But it is my job and my first priority to maintain public safety for my citizens. I applaud the Legislature for doing their job."
Curry County can keep four sheriff's deputies on the road and the jail open through July 2014, and it is working on putting a smaller tax increase on the November ballot, he said.
Curry County would have to increase income taxes by 23 percent to raise the $4.5 million needed to meet minimum public safety levels, Smith said. Some of the sting of the income tax increase could be reduced by imposing the 911 tax to share the load.
Walker said she was not certain the Josephine County board would be willing to impose some kind of taxes or fees because there have been a lot of changes to the legislation since the board discussed it. Three of their suggestions for allowing counties to augment their revenues without charging taxes were rejected.
She added that any new taxes or fees would only be authorized for 18 months. Josephine County's charter prohibits it from imposing an income tax, so new revenue would have to come from increasing the 911 tax already imposed by the state on telephone bills, or some kind of fees for services.
The state has been helping Josephine County by providing increased state police patrols.
The bill could only be used in two counties before July 2014. But as the years go by, without some kind of funding solution, more are likely to turn to it, Wolf said.
Many rural county leaders are still holding out hope that Congress will approve some kind of increase in logging on federal lands to increase timber revenues.
Sen. Herman Baertschiger, R-Grants Pass, voted no on the bill.
"I'm really saddened that we've succumbed to this kind of legislation."
"We want to undermine the communities? I'll tell you what, I have a lot more confidence...in my local community than the governor," he said.
Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, voted yes.
"This is the worst thing we could possibly do, but it's the one thing we have to do," he said. "It's the only option we have."