Curry County votes on raising taxes

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) - A new Oregon law that gives state and local officials an emergency pathway to raising taxes if voters won't pay for a minimum level of public safety faces its first test in Curry County, where declining federal timber revenues and a struggling local economy have left law enforcement on the brink of going broke.

Both the governor and Curry County Commission Chairman David Brock Smith hope voters will approve more than doubling their county property taxes, currently the lowest rate in the state, on Tuesday.

If they do not, Smith says the commission will be on the phone to the governor the next morning to talk about declaring an emergency. That would allow county commissioners to authorize a surcharge on other existing taxes to fill half the budget gap, and the state to pick up the rest.

"The county commissioners are the determiners of the minimally adequate level," said Greg Wolf, regional solutions director for Gov. John Kitzhaber. "The governor would rely on their judgment."

"The county commissioners would need to approve a declaration of an emergency in their county. But if they do that and the governor believed it was, indeed, a public emergency, then the (law) would be triggered, and it would require raising taxes."

Commissioners would choose some existing tax upon which to impose a surcharge, such as income taxes or the 911 tax on cell phones, to fill half the budget gap, and the state would fill the rest.

The county recently got $1 million from Congress in a one-year extension of a safety net for timber counties, which saw federal timber revenues steadily decline since logging was cut in the 1990s to protect fish and wildlife. But that money only partially fills the gap in funding for the sheriff, the district attorney, and the parole, probation, and juvenile departments, said Smith.

Without the levy, Sheriff John Bishop says funding for law enforcement runs out in the first half of 2014.

The levy is intended as a three-year funding bridge until legislation passes in Congress increasing logging on federal forests known as the O&C lands to increase revenues shared with counties.

Even if such legislation passes, those revenues will not be enough to sustain timber counties, Wolf said.

Smith said he felt voters would approve the latest levy, because it is significantly less than the one that failed in May by only 446 votes. And for this levy, the county put a pamphlet in tax bills giving a detailed explanation of where the money goes.

Curry County is not the only rural timber county facing a funding crisis. Josephine, Jackson, Douglas, Coos, Klamath and Lane counties have all struggled to keep jails open and law enforcement functioning.

"The governor really strongly hopes that the situation is successfully dealt with locally," said Wolf. "He does not relish the job of implementing" the emergency taxing measure.