Picking up the pieces

Last week, Josephine, Curry and Lane counties asked voters to help make up the loss of federal timber subsidy payments, with varying results. Lane County's proposed jail levy passed; Curry and Josephine counties' public safety levies were defeated.

Now state leaders in Salem are figuring out how to respond when a county goes broke.

That's the reality facing Curry County. Josephine County may limp along for a while with further cuts that would leave just one sheriff's deputy and an even smaller jail to house accused criminals — but even there, failure is only a matter of time unless something changes.

Even in Lane County, leaders still must address future needs beyond jail capacity. The passage of the jail levy wards off the worst of the crisis while officials craft a plan to fund other public safety functions for the next 10 years.

The solution being considered in Salem is House Bill 3453, which would give the governor the power to declare a "public safety fiscal emergency" in a failed county with the unanimous agreement of the president and minority leader of the Senate and the speaker and minority leader of the House. The state could consolidate units of local government and impose a local income tax if needed to continue police protection, with the agreement of county officials.

That may be a necessary step to prevent those counties from sinking into lawlessness, but it's not the ultimate solution. Counties such as Curry and Josephine won't be salvaged for the long term without fundamental change in their local economies, and that means jobs.

Some have suggested the Lane County strategy of limiting the tax measure to the jail was the key to success, but the real answer may be much simpler. It's a numbers game to be sure, but the important number is how broadly the pain can be spread.

Lane County has 355,000 residents and a total assessed property value of $26.6 billion. The Lane County levy will cost property owners 55 cents per $1,000 assessed value more than they are paying now.

Curry County has a population of 22,000 people, and a total assessed property value of $2.5 billion. Property owners there were asked to pay an additional $1.97 or $1.84 per $1,000, depending on whether they live in the unincorporated county or in a city.

Josephine County, with 83,000 people and an assessed value of $6.1 billion, asked for $1.48 per $1,000. That levy nearly passed, failing by just 539 votes.

Lane County's population is more than three times the other two counties combined.

It's easy to point to the fact that Curry and Josephine counties have the two lowest property tax rates in the state and demand that residents there must pay their own way.

But the shrinking timber harvests that made the federal timber payments dry up also made family-wage jobs evaporate. It's hard to ask people to pay higher taxes when they have no hope that their own financial emergencies are likely to ease any time soon.

Josephine County legislators Sen. Herman Baertschiger and Rep. Wally Hicks will hold a town hall meeting at 10 a.m. Saturday, June 1, at Taylor's Country Sausage in Cave Junction. Residents who care about public safety in the county should plan to attend.

Jackson County residents should not consider themselves immune from such a discussion. This county is in somewhat better shape, but that won't last forever.

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