May 30, 2015
Oregon House Revenue Committee Members
CC: Oregon State Representatives and Senators
Re: HJR 21 and Public Safety Fiscal Emergency in Josephine County
Dear State Representatives,
The Board of Directors of Securing Our Safety has approved this letter regarding HJR 21. By now, you are all aware of the fiscal crisis that exists in Josephine County, Curry County, and to a lesser extent other counties in Oregon. In short, this crisis has been brought about by the gradual dissolution of the O&C agreement and its successor, the Secure Rural Schools Act, followed by the repeated failure of local attempts to increase property taxes to compensate. We need not review the history here, but for representatives and senators that are from the Metro and other areas of Oregon, what the rural O&C Counties have experienced in recent years would be the equivalent of the Federal Government saying Nike and Intel can no longer operate in Oregon.
It’s the results that are important: the drastic reduction in funding for vital public services, particularly public safety and criminal justice, in these O&C counties. The impact has been a dramatic increase in the negative impacts of crime, along with an equally dramatic reduction in the ability of the County public safety services to respond in a timely or effective way. Even in cities like Grants Pass, which have continued to fund their separate public safety services through city-level property tax levies, the results have been felt, since jail capacity and district attorney staffing have been cut significantly, our award winning County Juvenile Justice Shelter and Detention building has been closed, leaving offenders and at-risk youth back on the streets within days or hours. Outside the City limits of Grants Pass, Josephine County currently has less law enforcement than third world countries and this is unacceptable.
Securing Our Safety (SOS) is a non-profit that formed in Josephine County in 2012. Our goal is to help our County identify solutions that will enable our community to provide and fund the services that are required for a “secure, stable, and sustainable Josephine County.” We are composed of a diverse cross-section of community members, from public officials to business leaders, retired law enforcement officers to educators and parents, physicians and students and shopkeepers, concerned parents, and more. Our primary common element is a concern for the future of our community and a commitment to its well-being. To date our efforts have focused mostly on the local Criminal Justice System, since it is the key infrastructure component of our community that has been most radically affected by the current crisis.
We are also recently began releasing a series of short 3-6 minute videos, documenting the actual human impact of drastic cuts to law enforcement services in our County in the last three years. Please watch these videos at http://securingoursafety.org/category/sos-video-series/. Our organization has over 1000 followers in Josephine County and growing.
Of course our primary reason for this short letter is to comment on HJR 21, or the “$2 bill” as it has been called. While well intentioned and desperately needed in some of Oregon’s rural counties, as currently written there are some amendments necessary to make this the best bill possible before sending this important measure to voters statewide. Again, it’s necessary to consider a constitutional amendment to rules about property taxes at the County level in Oregon, but this bill needs important amendments before we go through the major process of a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment to County property taxes.
Forcing all Counties to levy a set rate is not appropriate. One size very rarely fits all when it comes to Counties in Oregon. While a $2 requirement may be fine for some Counties, in others it’s not. And as revenue structures can and do change in the future, what’s right for a County today might not be right for a County a few years from now.
Instead, the constitutional amendment to property taxes should be amended to reset a County’s permanent rate authority at $2.00 per $1000 of assessed value for any County that has a permanent rate less than $2.00. This allows for local control for Counties that might find other ways to fund basic law enforcement and criminal justice services. For Counties that find other ways to fund basic services, they could then choose to levy less than the permanent rate authority of $2.00 per $1000 of assessed values if local County officials found other ways to fund critical services such as law enforcement. Giving the Counties a right, but not an obligation, to levy a certain tax rate, is a much better solution for all 36 Counties.
Once again, if we’re going to go through the time consuming and costly process of considering a statewide constitutional amendment to property taxes at the County level, let’s do it right. A minimum levy requirement or a one size fits all is not the answer. A reset of the permanent rate authority for Counties is a much better answer that continues to allow for some local control.
This is an extremely important bill and it should be amended and sent to the full legislature for consideration as soon as possible. There are a handful of O&C Counties that are either in fiscal crisis today or will be in crisis very soon so please contact us if we can help in your deliberations.
Jay Meredith, CPA
President and Board Chair
Securing Our Safety, Inc.