Josephine County will vote again on public safety tax

Josephine County will vote again on public safety tax
FILE -- Fred Martin of Grants Pass, Ore., casts his Josephine County ballot Tuesday, May 21, 2013 in Grants Pass, Ore. Josephine was one of three counties asking voters to approve tax increases to pay for law enforcement after deep cuts to federal subsidies to timber counties. This year Josephine County will again vote to raise taxes to pay for public safety. (AP file Photo/Jeff Barnard)

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) - For the third time in two years, Josephine County will vote on whether to raise property taxes to pay for public safety.
   
This time, supporters hope to overcome the distrust of government that has sunk past levies by seeking a smaller tax increase focused on restoring full capacity at the jail, so criminals won't be back on the street soon after their arrest.
   
"This challenge has to be overcome to keep this community a nice place to live," said Jay Meredith, city finance director and president of the group Securing Our Safety, which put the $8 million per year levy on the ballot. "I think enough people are fed up with what we have experienced over time to say that's not how we want to live. We don't want to live in a community that can't take care of folks committing crimes against us."
   
Jim Rafferty is co-founder of the group We're for Constitutional Government, owns a business selling hardwoods and cabinet hardware, and ran unsuccessfully for county commissioner in 2006. He said people cannot afford the higher taxes, which amount to $238 a year on a $200,000 house. Josephine County has a lot of retired people on fixed incomes, wages are low, and jobs are hard to come by.
   
"If you can afford it, why don't you go ahead and pay your share over and above the property tax?" he said. "Why not? They'll take donations."
   
Josephine County once received enough money from federal logging revenues that it did not have to charge property taxes. That all came crashing down in the 1990s, when the federal government cut logging on federal timberlands to protect the northern spotted owl, salmon and clean water.
   
Since then, one subsidy after another has been provided by Congress to make up for the lost money, but in recent years, the amount has diminished, with no guarantee it will be renewed.
   
Timber counties throughout southwestern Oregon face similar funding problems. Only Lane County has been able to raise property taxes and that was focused on the jail.
   
When voters refused to fill a $12 million gap in May 2012, the Josephine County Sheriff's Office closed all but 60 beds at the jail, half of them for federal inmates. The county shut down the juvenile detention center and shelter, and the district attorney laid off prosecutors. State police had to boost patrols and investigations to cover the worst crimes and car wrecks. Armed citizen patrols were formed. Applications for concealed firearms permits skyrocketed.
   
None of that stopped the city of Grants Pass from seeing an increase in burglaries, car thefts, shoplifting and disorderly conduct, Grants Pass Public Safety interim Chief bill Landis said.
   
With no room at the jail, police could only hand out tickets for non-violent crimes, and criminals were free to go across the street and break into another house with little fear of going to jail, he said.
   
Last year, the City Council gave the sheriff $1 million to open 20 jail beds exclusively for the city's use, which soon helped police regain control, Landis said.
   
Now the city is saying it is done subsidizing the jail.
   
The levy was put on the ballot by a citizens group, Securing Our Safety. It would triple county property taxes, now the lowest in the state at 58 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation. The $1.19 per $1,000 increase would raise about $8 million a year for five years to restore full capacity at the jail of 260 beds and reopen the juvenile detention center and shelter. That funding would free up about $4 million from the county general fund to put perhaps a dozen more deputies on patrol.
   
Besides the cost, Rafferty said he does not trust county commissioners to use the money as it is intended and the sheriff could have spent his money more wisely. He said the county should force the federal government to resume logging on the so-called O&C lands that once provided so much revenue. He added that the city accounts for most of the crime in the county, so it should shoulder more of the costs. With practically no patrols, the sheriff's department is not arresting anyone, so it doesn't need the jail, he said.
   
Meredith countered that with no levy, the jail will go back to having a revolving door, and one of the primary supports of the criminal justice system will be crippled.
   
The mail ballots will be counted May 20.

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