On Tuesday night, Curry County Sheriff John Bishop shook his head and sighed.
Voters had defeated Measure 8-71, which would have increased property taxes to fund public safety in a county near bankruptcy.
“I’m disappointed in the real small turnout,“ Bishop said. “It is what it is, and it’s going to get interesting.”
According to county Elections Clerk Reneé Kolan, almost 50 percent of Curry County’s 13,501 registered voters cast ballots.
With the measure’s defeat, county discretionary spending falls to $2.1 million.
“Now we need to get to work,” said County Commissioner Susan Brown, who opposed the measure. “I think it’s an opportunity — a huge opportunity. We’ll sit with the citizens and see what we can do. It’s all good.”
Until recent years, the bulk of county services were paid for by timber revenue on former O&C and U.S. Bureau of Land Management property. But those federal dollars have ended, and past county commissions have failed to develop a method to replace those funds.
“It’s the toughest time in United States history, Oregon history, Curry County history, to ask for any kind of tax increase,” County Commissioner David Itzen said. “People are really hurting. Unemployment is high. The forests are locked up. It’s a difficult time. We only have tough choices ahead of us — no easy choices. But we will continue to work to find a solution for Curry County’s problem.”
Commissioners have yet to begin talks on working under the constraints of that $2.1 million budget.
Had the measure had passed, it would have provided the jail, Sheriff’s Office, juvenile department and District Attorney’s Office with $5.4 million to provide public safety. All those departments are deemed to be operating far below adequate levels.
The tax increase would have bridged that shortfall for five years, giving commissioners time to craft a palatable tax measure to permanently fund a public safety special district. Measure 8-71 would have increased Curry County’s tax rate from 59.9 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation an additional $1.97 per $1,000 for those living in unincorporated Curry County and $1.84 per $1,000 for those living in the county’s three cities.
“I’ve had people who feel like resigning,” Bishop said. “It’s going to hit morale. They work really hard. They see this doesn’t pass and they take it personally. I truly do not believe it’s a reflection of the Sheriff’s Office. We’ll keep our heads up and do what we can with what we’ve got and go from there.”
Bishop has said he fears criminals running rampant, deputies not being available to respond to even the worst crimes and money to fund the jail running out.
“It’s unfortunate that we were not able to inform the citizens well enough with regards to the importance of the levy,” said County Commissioner David Brock Smith, a supporter of the tax measure. “And it would have been much easier to inform citizens if we’d had a unified board. The only organized opposition was the city of Brookings; I don’t know what their motives are for the opposition. Only time will tell.”
Commissioners plan to meet June 11 to plan a $2.1 million budget. No one knows how much money will be specifically allocated to each department until the commissioners act; the fiscal year begins July 1.
“You just can’t operate on it ($2.1 million),” Itzen said. “I don’t know if it would be productive to go through that exercise again. We have to do it before the state budget deadline. My guess is the emergency legislation will take effect before that.”
Included in all the budget scenarios is a chance the jail will have to close.
“I don’t think they’ll do that — I don’t think they can,” Bishop said. “They ought to keep the jail open, but they could shut it all down. I hate this because I don’t know. I don’t have a clear picture of what they want to do.”
The Sheriff’s Office consumes the lion’s share of the coastal county’s general fund. Some services under Bishop’s umbrella — search and rescue, parole and probation and marine patrol — are funded by the state and won’t be affected.
Bishop said it’s difficult to plan without an established budget.
“I’ve gotten $1.2 (million), I’ve gotten 1.5 — I’ve gotten 800 (thousand),” he said of hypothetical budget scenarios. “I’ll assume I’ll have enough money to fund the jail, two patrol deputies and a civil deputy. I am unsure what they’ll do with 911.”