Help failing counties — but send them a bill

Lane County's voters dodged a bullet by passing a serial law enforcement levy last Tuesday and gained five years to put their fiscal house in order. Hapless voters in Curry and Josephine counties shot themselves in the foot — again. By rejecting new revenue for their for their flailing county governments, these residents may become wards of the state.

For decades, many Western Oregon counties received their principal source of revenue from logging on Oregon & California Railroad lands in lieu of the property taxes that would have been paid if the railroad had sold that land to private property owners as the terms of the 19th century railroad construction grant required. Once the railroad's cheating was exposed in the early 1900s, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the railroad land "re-vested" to the federal government and required payments in lieu of property taxes to the affected counties. As stumpage prices rose during the World War II housing boom, the payments became a cornucopia of cash.

In recent years, it became clear that the conservatives in Congress were no longer willing to make the required payments to the counties. Despite this handwriting on the wall, some of these Oregon counties and their voters refused to create an adequate property tax base to function without the federal timber payments.

Now the day of reckoning is at hand for Curry and Josephine counties. The day of reckoning for the rest of these O&C counties, such as Jackson and Klamath, is close enough that the Legislature is considering what the state will do in case any of these "zombie" counties actually runs out of money.

There is a terrible temptation to let the recalcitrant residents of some of these counties stew in the juice of their own making. But that is really not an option because that attitude disenfranchises the voters who responsibly try to provide adequate operating revenue.

For example, a county election department also conducts elections for cities, school districts and special service districts in that county. The courts, financed in part by counties, do more than try criminals. Divorces, child custody, contractual disputes — all sorts of civil law — are conducted under county supervision. Health inspections, public health care, veterans benefits and care are often administered by counties. The delivery of state services by county governments is so intertwined, the Legislature is considering HB 2206 to allow the state to take over county functions during an "emergency" and bill the county for the cost.

Who declares an "emergency?" The governor, the Oregon Senate president and the speaker of the House. HB 3453 allows the governor to "impose an income tax assessment" on residents of the affected counties to pay their bills — a constitutionally dubious process.

There is a problem with this picture. The governor, the Senate president and the speaker are all Democrats and come from Portland or Salem. The "affected counties" are largely in Southern Oregon and are the reddest of Oregon's red electorate. This may be the responsible way to respond to the self-imposed collapse of a county government, but it is not going to be politically acceptable. The Democrats don't need the grief and the Republicans need a politically acceptable way out of the woods for their fiscally failing counties.

So what to do? First, take the drama out of the inevitable event. One or more of these counties will be unable to function financially in the next year or two. No emergency declarations are needed. No threats to impose an income tax on obstinate voters are necessary.

When a county ceases to adequately perform services required by state law, the governor, acting as head of the executive branch of government, should instruct his agency heads to visit with county officials with whom they have regular contact — The superintendent of State Police with the local sheriff, head of the Corrections Division and the Juvenile Authority with the county jail staff, director of the Elections Division in the Secretary of State's Office with county elections officials — and so forth, similar to some of the provisions in HB 2206. Each agency head will come up with a bare-bones budget for a definite period — 12 or 24 months — to insure minimum services in that county.

The governor should submit these budgets to the Legislature or, if the Legislature is not in session, the Emergency Board. The budgets should be paid for out of the emergency fund left at the end of each session or sent through the Legislature's usual appropriation process. That is the check and balance against accusations of partisan abuse or political persecution.

But isn't the Legislature just bailing out the failing county? No. It is not. As the state treasurer authorizes the payment of the legislative appropriation to the county, he slaps a lien on all future revenue to that county — everything from future property or income taxes to future timber receipts. This money is a loan from the taxpayers in the rest of the state to the failing county until its own taxpayers decide how they will pay their bills. The taxpayers' patience is not infinite and the meter is running.

Russell Sadler has covered Oregon politics and the Legislature for nearly 50 years. This Memorial Day weekend marks the 47th anniversary of his trip along the Oregon Trail from his native Cleveland — by train — to attend the University of Oregon, where he received a degree in Journalism in 1967.

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