Timber counties seek tax hikes

Lane, Curry and Josephine voters are being asked to offset cuts in law enforcement funding

Jeff Barnard / The Associated Press /

GRANTS PASS — Three timber counties are asking voters to raise their taxes to restore deep cuts to law enforcement forced by the expiration of a longstanding federal subsidy.

Residents of Lane, Curry and Josephine counties will be voting this May on measures to fund law enforcement.

All three counties saw big budget gaps after a federal safety net for timber counties known as the Secure Rural Schools Act expired and taxpayers refused to pay the difference. County officials are hoping that voters will agree to restore bare-bones law enforcement services after a year of living with revolving jail doors, reduced sheriff’s patrols and fewer prosecutors.

Curry County — the smallest — is in the worst shape.

“If it fails May 21, come June 30 there is a very, very good likelihood Curry County won’t exist as we know it today,” Sheriff John Bishop said. “We won’t have a jail, we won’t have patrol, we won’t have a sheriff’s office, period. If it does pass, it will allow us to continue running until a permanent solution is found.”

For many timber counties, that permanent solution depends on more logging on the patchwork of federal timber in Western Oregon and Klamath County known as the O&C lands, which reverted to the federal government after the old Oregon & California Railroad went bankrupt. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management sends half the proceeds from timber sales to the counties. Revenues plummeted 18 years ago when logging was cut back to protect fish and wildlife habitat. Congress created a safety net, which has not expired.

So far, taxpayers paying some of the lowest tax rates in the state have refused to raise them. In Lane County, voters have turned down the last nine law enforcement levies. But Commissioner Sid Leiken hopes this time will be different.

Commissioners voted to put a five-year law enforcement levy before voters that would raise $14.5 million the first year just for the jail. Surveys indicate that voters would be willing to pay for more jail beds, both adults and juveniles, but not for more rural patrols, prosecutors, or probation officers.

“People know exactly what they want and what they will vote for,” Leiken said. “Based on the surveys, this gives us the best chance.” The levy would boost jail capacity to 255 beds for the next five years. Otherwise, the jail stands to fall to 26 beds in two years.

In Josephine County, which has the lowest tax rate in the state, voters last year refused to plug a $12 million funding gap. After a year of releasing inmates early because of a shortage of jail beds, commissioners are coming back with a measure to triple the tax rate to raise $9 million a year. Just what it would cover is being worked out, but it would pay for animal control, school security and jail beds.

“Frankly, it’s a last resort,” Commissioner Simon Hare said. “We see it as a bridge to a long-term solution the board is working on.”

Hare said he has little confidence timber payments will be restored any time soon. The county is looking at generating $1 million a year from 30,000 acres of county timberlands, and moving the county fairgrounds out of town, so the facilities in town could generate rental income.