GRANTS PASS — Hoping to stave off bankruptcy and a state takeover, Curry County commissioners are again asking voters to approve a tax increase to keep sheriff's patrols on the road and the jail open.
County Commission Chairman David Brock Smith said Monday that he hopes two things that have happened since a tax hike was voted down last May will make a difference come November.
The county is asking for less this time — $3.2 million over three years, rather than $4 million over five years. The new amount is the minimum necessary to keep the jail open and six deputies on patrol, and would not restore any of the deep cuts over recent years.
And a new law allows the governor to declare an emergency in counties where citizens refuse to pay for minimum public services. That opens the way for county officials to impose new taxes, either a surcharge on income taxes, or an increase in phone taxes to pay for 911 services. The state would bear half the costs.
If voters turn down the levy, Curry County is in line to be the first test of the new law.
"I do not want to have to go down the road of what House Bill 3453 has in its designs," Smith said. But he also does not want to see repeated in Curry County what happened in Josephine County.
Last year, a woman in Cave Junction called 911 as her ex-boyfriend was trying to break into her house, but the dispatcher had to tell her there were no deputies to send to her aid. The ex-boyfriend was later arrested and pleaded guilty to kidnapping, assault and sex abuse, and was sentenced to eight years in prison.
The county of 22,000 on the southern Oregon Coast has one of the lowest property tax rate in the state, 60 cents per $1,000 valuation. That compares to $4.34 per $1,000 in Multnomah County. The tax levy would increase taxes by $1.34 per $1,000.
While the new law gives counties the power to keep law enforcement and other vital services going, even if voters won't pay for them, it is not a long-term solution to revenue problems that have been building for two decades. Rural counties such as Curry and Josephine that once could depend on federal timber revenues have been struggling to pay for sheriff's patrols, jails and prosecutors since a federal safety net expired.
Legislation is pending in Congress to increase logging on so-called O&C lands in Western Oregon to increase federal revenues to counties. But its future remains in doubt. Even if it is enacted, it won't produce any new revenue for two or three years.
While all three county commissioners endorsed the language of the tax hike and the amount, one — Commissioner Susan Brown — did not vote to put the levy on the November ballot, saying more time was needed to build support.
Meanwhile, tax increase opponents have launched recall campaigns against Smith and Commissioner David Itzen.