One more time

Lawmakers desperate to go home approved House Bill 3453 this year in an end-of-the-session frenzy. But don't hold that against the measure, which could prove its worth in November when Curry County voters decide yet again whether to raise taxes to support meager public services. HB 3453 will give many of those who might otherwise say "no" an incentive to say "yes."

The provisions of the new law aren't the only incentives for a positive vote, of course, nor are they the most meaningful. That would be the severely weakened condition of county services, and public safety in particular. Just six years ago, the county had the equivalent of about 200 full-time employees, says commission Chairman David Brock Smith. That number has been more than halved, he says, though the county has taken pains to preserve funding for public safety. Even so, the county can afford only six deputies, which is about half the number needed to maintain round-the-clock patrols.

County officials have cut costs dramatically and made the obvious request: Raise your taxes, please. When you've got an exceptionally low property tax rate (the state's second lowest, at 60 cents per $1,000 of assessed value) combined with a looming funding catastrophe, that shouldn't be a hard sell. But it has been in Curry for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the county's dire economic condition. In May, voters defeated a five-year levy for law enforcement.

They'll vote again on Nov. 5, but the levy this time is shorter (three years) and cheaper. Voters may be won over this time by the proposal's frugality and by HB 3453, which sets out an alternative method of raising taxes to meet crises such as the one facing Curry County. The law gives the governor the authority to declare a fiscal emergency in counties unable to provide minimally adequate levels of service. Commissioners may then enter into an agreement with the state to provide basic services and split the cost, to which end counties may impose taxes rather than ask for them. In Curry's case, that's likely to be an income tax surcharge.

This means Curry County voters can't say "no" to tax increases indefinitely while basic government functions like law enforcement, planning and tax assessment starve. If they don't raise their taxes, someone will probably to do it for them.

Even under the threat of this ultimatum, the outcome of the November vote is far from certain, owing partly to ballot competition. The board of The Curry Health Network voted this month to place a tax increase on the ballot to pay for projects in Gold Beach and Port Orford, The Curry Coastal Pilot has reported. The hospital district covers only part of Curry County, but talk about inconvenient timing.

Curry County has struggled for so long that it's almost impossible to imagine good news emerging from Oregon's southwest corner. But the approval of a three-year levy would certainly qualify, and — who knows? — Congress may contribute to the good cheer by approving long-need legislation designed to boost logging on so-called O&C lands, which cover parts of Josephine and Curry counties. Keep your fingers crossed.

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