Commissioners in three of Oregon’s most financially strapped counties will put a piece of their problem squarely in voters’ laps come May when they ask for local option levies to help keep their law enforcement systems afloat.
If history is an indicator, the commissioners have a tough sales job ahead of them.
Lane County commissioners decided this week to ask voters for money to beef up services at the county jail, a facility designed for 255 inmates that currently houses only 83.
In Curry County on the Oregon coast, meanwhile, voters will decide the fate of a levy designed to keep public safety services at their current levels.
In Josephine County, the proceeds of a levy would expand the number of available jail beds and pay for some other public safety services, as well.
All three counties face similar hurdles in getting their levies passed. Lane County voters have rejected nine consecutive public safety levies since 1998. Josephine and Curry counties, with the lowest and second lowest property tax rates in the state, respectively, also are near the bottom in median incomes among Oregon counties. The median income is the one squarely in the middle value of all incomes.
Historically, all three counties have been particularly dependent on timber income to balance their budgets.
All are among the counties that were promised half of timber receipts by Congress in 1937 when timber income amounted to something.
All have been particularly reliant on federal income from the Secure Rural Schools Act since it first was approved in 2000, though that money has declined dramatically and the act is not expected to be renewed in the coming year.
And voters in all have, to some extent, been willing to gamble with their property taxes, refusing to approve levies. Perhaps they hope Uncle Sam will come to the rescue.
That’s unlikely to happen this time, however, and it places voters in the three counties on the hot seat. If they want to keep criminals in jail, they’re going to have to be willing to pay for it.