No way to run a county

The Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center and its backers want to create a taxing district to support its programs. Those programs are valuable, well worth the small cost to property owners, and an Extension District would stand a good chance of winning voter approval. But that's no way to run a county.

As its backers point out, the Research and Extension Center provides invaluable assistance to the county's $55 million agriculture industry. It offers experience and training to local young people through 4-H clubs, and the Master Gardener Program helps local residents grow healthy food, to name just a few of its benefits.

What's more, the modest contribution from the county leverages far more money from federal programs that require local expenditures. Every local dollar spent on Extension programs generates $8.48 from other sources.

The Jackson County Budget Committee made cuts this year to cover a shortfall left by the loss of federal timber subsidies and to avoid drawing down county reserves too quickly. The county's $200,000 share of the Extension Center budget was one of the casualties. The commissioners agreed to extend county support for half the coming fiscal year, and directed the Extension Center to find other sources of funding.

The proposed taxing district would cost property owners between 2 cents and 5 cents per $1,000 of assessed value — or $3.18 to $7.95 per year on a house assessed at the county median value of $158,800.

Sounds like a bargain. But it may not be the only bargain voters have to choose from.

If Extension supporters gather enough signatures to put the district on the ballot, it may be competing with proposed districts to support the Southern Oregon Historical Society and the Jackson County Library System — or a portion of that system covering just the southern portion of the county.

All this because the county commissioners rejected a surcharge proposed by Commissioner Don Skundrick that would have generated money to support county jail operations at a cost of $84 per household per year ($7 a month), freeing up money to continue paying for other general fund items including sheriff's patrols, veterans services, the Extension Service and libraries. A survey of likely voters showed 57 percent opposed the idea, and the commissioners balked.

Legally, the county could impose a surcharge without asking the voters. That wouldn't sit well with those residents who think they should get to sign off on every decision their elected officials make, but it would keep a functioning county government intact.

No, not every county resident uses the Extension Service, or the libraries, or visits Historical Society properties or exhibits. But all those entities benefit the county as a whole — contributing to the local farm economy, helping educate the community's children and adults, preserving the county's rich history for residents and visitors alike.

Cutting those services loose to campaign for their own funding is likely to result in a free-for-all, pitting library supporters against Extension Service backers and history enthusiasts. Those entities that can rally their constituencies will survive, while the others may not.

If voters must take on the job of choosing which county services to pay for, they may begin to wonder why they need commissioners at all.

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