It’s hard to see a happy end to the budget problems that have Josephine and Curry counties on the brink of financial disaster. Every solution offered has serious drawbacks.
Both counties relied heavily on timber revenues from the federal government to fill coffers from 1937 until the early 1990s. Since then, they’ve relied nearly as heavily on funds from the federal Secure Rural Schools Act. That money dried up this year.
Meanwhile, the counties have other problems. Per capita income in both is at or below $32,000 annually, about 75 percent of the national average. Meanwhile, Curry County has the second largest percentage of retirement-age residents in Oregon, trailing only Wheeler.
All of which may help explain — but not justify — why voters in the two counties rejected bond measures last month that would have kept sheriff’s department patrols and jails running. The situation is particularly dire in Curry County, which must try to pay for all its county government, including public safety, elections, veterans affairs and the like, on slightly more than $2 million in the coming year. It cannot be done.
Among the proposals to correct the situation:
• Residents in both counties have talked about establishing citizen law enforcement patrols in rural areas. Of all the ideas put forth, the one of county-sanctioned vigilante patrols is downright scary and illegal to boot.
• Josephine County officials have hinted they’d like to take a chunk of property taxes that now go to schools and other services. We can’t imagine voters taking this one lying down.
• There’s also talk of letting the counties keep some of the lottery revenue generated within them, thereby cheating other Oregonians by diverting the funds.
• A bill in the Legislature, HB 3453, would allow the governor to impose an income tax on the two counties, matched by state funds, to keep public safety agencies running. Political leaders in the counties would have to agree, and we suspect that doing so would be political suicide. A companion bill would turn some county functions over to the secretary of state’s office.
• Gov. John Kitzhaber has talked of activating the National Guard to supply law enforcement in the two counties, while some county residents have suggested that the state contract with sheriff’s departments to pay to keep deputies employed. Of all the suggestions, these two may actually make the most sense because they’re simple and address the counties’ most critical need.
In the end, however, residents of the counties are going to have to come to grips with a hard truth. Despite earlier promises from Uncle Sam, their counties’ ability to provide jail space, sheriff’s deputies, district attorneys and all the other services that counties provide lies in their hands. They may get another temporary fix or two, but no permanent solution will ever be found in Salem or Washington, D.C.