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Our problems may soon be yours

rainey BARRETT


While you’ve got enough national crises on your plate at the moment, there’s a new pile of ‘em building up in our little corner of Southwest Oregon that you need to keep up on. You almost never hear the subject mentioned in normal conversation. But we’ve got a county with one foot in a bankruptcy hole and others standing very close to the edge.

The Oregon legislature is wrestling with what to do about this mess but, so far, no bright ideas. There are several pieces of legislation floating around the marble halls in Salem. But no consensus. Yet.

A combination of the loss of millions of dollars tied to federal timberlands and some bad county management has Curry County going to the voters in May for a property tax levy. Asking Curry voters to approve any increase in property taxes for ANY reason is like playing Russian Roulette with six bullets in the chamber. DOA.

All 18 counties who’ve been drawing the federal O&C lands millions for decades are hurting. While several of our congressional hired hands are trying to get yet another extension through the “Congress of the Walking Dead,” don’t hold your breath. In all likelihood, the State of Oregon will have to be the hero that saves the day. If it can.

Several counties swilling at the federal timber trough all these years have managed to put some bucks away – figuring the whole O&C business would end someday. A couple of reduced dollar amount extensions have kept the budgetary wolves at bay for several years. But those days are over. Unless you can picture John Boehner and his posse riding to the rescue with more federal bucks. Yeah.

Curry is in the worst shape primarily because of bad – or maybe gutless – elected mismanagement for many years. Curry collects taxes at about the lowest assessed values in the state. That often happens in a low population county where everybody knows everybody else. A few years ago, Curry had its back to the wall because the Coos-Curry Electric Board refused to regularly raise rates to pass along increases from power suppliers like Bonneville.

It was piling up debt while its transmission system was being held together with duct tape. The Board simply tried to absorb increasing costs rather than raise rates on rate payers. The neighbors. Finally, the feds stepped in and said – to the effect – “Start paying back your loans or you won’t be getting any more.” Rates went up. Ratepayers bitched. But the rates went up. And some old board members (neighbors) were defeated.

That same scenario has been playing out with several Curry County commissions refusing to increase property assessments to keep up with costs of county operation over the years. Just bein’ neighborly. Faced with a brick wall straight ahead last year, Curry voters said “NO” and things started going to Hell.

Same in Josephine County where the crime rate is up 50% in Grants Pass and 45% in the county this year. Prosecutions are down 42%. At least two armed civilian groups have been created to keep the peace. There aren’t enough deputies to man the jail. So, unless you’re Jeffrey Dahmer, you plead and go home. Or go back to breaking-and-entering.

Thanks to Sheriff John Bishop in Curry, things aren’t quite that bad. But even he says he’ll have to lock things up if voters say “NO” again.
Meanwhile, back in Salem, there’s House Bill 2206. As law, it would allow the state to take over all or part of county operations if the governor declared a fiscal emergency. Local offices considered most critical for continued operation are county clerk, assessor, treasurer and tax collector. That’s because they set the amount of taxes due, then collect and disburse them to taxing districts and cities. The state would grant some dollars to the county and take tax dollars from cigarettes and liquor sales. It would take dollars from county taxing districts and disburse what’s left to those districts such as fire, library, cemetery and cities.

And that’s where the Oregon League of Cities is objecting. What if there’s nothing left? Which is likely. What if the dollars run out before the cities get theirs? So, HB 2206 is stuck in committee. They’re workin’ on it.

Separate bills are trying to patch up county prosecutors offices, law enforcement and others to keep counties open for business. Rep. Bruce Hanna has HB 2924 on his desk. As law, it would allow counties to formally file for bankruptcy. No county ever has in Oregon history. So, a lot of folks are trying to figure out what would happen if Curry or Josephine or Lane or some other county were forced off the cliff.

So, consider. Highways are not patrolled overnight in many locales. Gun sales are at a peak. Two armed vigilante groups are roaming the roads in Josephine. Crime rates are going way up. Roads are going to Hell. School districts, water, sewer, highway districts and more can’t keep up with repairs as infrastructure hereabouts cracks and breaks. Our school district is talking closure of at least one elementary school with all the problems that creates. Many city and county employee job vacancies aren’t being filled. So we have problems keeping some services while our already high unemployment- and crime – rates go up.

Unless you live in Southwest Oregon, all this may seem irrelevant to you. Interesting. But not your problem. Well, here’s something to think about. Suppose the folks in Salem decide the only way to bail out SOME countries is to rearrange formulas for state and federal grant dollars to ALL counties. Suppose they decide re-opening jails, fixing broken water supplies and putting more cops back on the highways are necessary for the public well-being. If our county revenues won’t do that for some, where will the state look for other funding?

Like all governments, the State of Oregon has just so many places to hunt for dollars. Taking a few bucks from one pocket to put in the empty one is about all there is. The question is: if one pocket (or more) has the need, which pocket (or more) can spare the bucks? Maybe yours.

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