Trust and Transparency Committee

Grant Medley
Committee Captain Grant Medley

Grant can be contacted at:  grantmedley@charter.net

Trust and Transparency:  There is a lot of mistrust of county government, but is it based on rumors, lies, or truth?  Or all three?  Our committee is making an effort to explore areas of misunderstanding and communicate the reality clearly and in plain language.  Before people can support public safety, they have to believe it is working for them.

 

Where do our Property Tax dollars go?

You keep trying to sell the voters that we are only paying $.58 in property tax.  In reality we are paying about $6.27, plus paying for our own Fire Service.  What voters would like to see examined is where the other $5.69 is going, and why none of that is targeted for reduction instead of Law Enforcement.  Any inquiries in this area are always simply dismissed as “Mandatory”.  It would be interesting to see exactly what is more “Mandatory” than Law Enforcement.        – A voter in Merlin

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We in Josephine County do pay more than $0.58 per thousand. That’s true. It is also true that property owners in the rural areas of the County pay for their own fire service. Outside the Illinois Valley, they get it from private, for-profit companies. Note that not everyone chooses to sign up for these services; the costs for those who choose not to are passed along to those who do, in the form of higher rates. Illinois Valley residents voted to create a special taxing district, the Illinois Valley Fire District, so property taxes fund fire service for all IV residents.

The total amount of property tax you pay depends upon where you live and ranges from $5.94 to $12.49.  Most of this money funds services other than public safety, including schools, 4-H, Forestry, Rogue Community College, and bond payments. For Grants Pass residents, who pay the highest taxes, most of their tax bill goes to fund City services.

By law, funds from these other taxing districts can’t be shifted to the Sheriff’s Office, because these tax rates were set by the ballot initiatives that created them.

County voters could choose to reduce the amount of taxes they pay for, say, RCC, or 4-H. However, to do this, an initiative would have to be put on the ballot and passed by voters. Such a ballot initiative would have to specify both that these rates would be reduced and that the difference would be transferred to public safety. The County can’t simply take this money and use it for another purpose. To do so would break the law.

Regardless of where you live in Josephine County, the amount that goes to the General Fund – part of which is used to fund public safety – is still just $0.587 per thousand dollars of property value. That money has to pay for all services paid for by the County, not just public safety but also such items as the assessor’s office and maintenance for County-owned property. (Note that your property taxes no longer pay for County Parks or libraries. Those services have been eliminated from the County budget. The parks and libraries now support themselves through other means.)

It’s also important to note that there is a big difference between the “assessed value” and the “market value” of a property. When Measure 50 passed in 1997, property values were rolled back to 1994 levels and increases were capped at 3% annually. This means that even though property values in Josephine County have increased dramatically in the past 20 years, the “assessed value” on which the County collects taxes has fallen behind, so property tax revenues haven’t kept up.

Finally, keep in mind that the 58 cents per thousand has been fixed at the same rate since 1996. The portion of this 58 cents that is allocated to public safety has actually increased in the past several years, thanks to vast reductions in other areas of the budget – including cuts in the County’s payroll, from more than 600 employees to less than half that today. But the reallocation still must be within that 58 cents. The rest of your tax bill can’t be touched without voter approval.

Overall spending on public safety has been drastically reduced since the end of the federal Secure Rural Schools Act’s subsidies. These payments were $12 million as recently as 2008-09. This is more than three times the entire amount that Josephine County currently collects in property taxes for County use – only part of which can go to pay for public safety.

So the short answer to the question is that yes, money could be shifted within the General Fund to pay for law enforcement. However, much of this reallocation has already been done. Funds from other areas of the budget – which represent the majority of the property taxes you pay – can’t be moved to pay for law enforcement without approval from the voters, by ballot initiative.

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An explanation of the Josephine County Administrative Service Fee.

In a lot of ways, southern Oregon is a lot like the Ozarks. As much as K-S Wild talks about our unique ecosystem, our mountains look a lot like the Ozarks. Generally comparable elevations, same scrubby trees. Culturally, we are similar too. They have hillbillies.  We have rednecks.  They brew moonshine. We grow marijuana. And when it comes to government credibility, we share that common “show me” attitude. We tend to take what government officials tell us with a pound of salt.  This can be healthy but unless fortified with knowledge, it can lead to a great deal of misunderstanding.

It happened one day, when the sheriff funding crisis first arose, that I was traveling out to Hog Creek landing. I found myself behind a caravan of sheriff’ s vehicles all towing those fancy jet boats the sheriff uses, apparently headed out on one of those body recovery searches. Of course, I had to ask myself, ‘How is it the sheriff can afford all these expensive boats but can’t afford a deputy? Part of that “show me” thing.

Upon later inquiry, I found out that the fancy boats were funded by a special federal grant.  Their cost had nothing to do with local county funding. Thus we see an example of the credibility challenge confronting our local elected officials. What the public sees doesn’t always jibe with what the politicians tell us because we don’t know all the facts.

The same sort of credibility challenge has arisen currently over a thing the public calls the “administrative fund.” Under the 2013-2014 budget, the General Fund gives Public Safety slightly more than $2.5 million. Then, by way of interfund transfer, Public Safety returns about 10% to the General Fund. A “show me” redneck sees this accounting sleight of hand and says, “Whoa. This is nothing but a shell game.” He assumes that, as with any shell game, the objective must be to steal from the sucker, who can only be the general public.

The explanation, to the uninformed, is the same as with the sheriff’s jet boats. Our county government has two sorts of funding. We have our own money. We also have a great deal of what I call “passthrough” money. That is money that really belongs to someone else (either the State or the Federal government) which is handed to us to be paid to specific intended beneficiaries for specific intended purposes. Thus, the total 2013-2014 county budget consists of slightly more than $68 million. Of that total, however, only the general fund of $10.5 million is our own money.  The difference consists of this passthrough money, which must be spent for specific purposes.  We can, of course, spend our own money in whatever way we choose.  With passthrough money, we have no such discretion.

The problem is that the county government provides a great many services for the intended beneficiaries of the passthrough monies.  The county handles the payroll for all the county employees, regardless of their funding source.  The county does the hiring, collects and pays their taxes, and provides their insurance. (Unlike other Oregon counties, Josephine does not match their PERS contributions).  In recognition of this burden, State and Federal rules and regulations allow the County to charge an administrative fee as compensation for the costs incurred. This is the Internal Service Charge, or ISF. This charge is a contributed to the county’s own general fund, and is used to fund overhead expenses that all departments use.  By virtue of this charge, a portion of the passthrough monies become our money, and this is a justifiable help to our budget, as we do incur the expenses.

For example, the following departments must be funded by law–either state or local charter– and receive no state, federal, or fee income.

Assessor                                     1,136,600

Treasurer                                       437,700

Commissioners                              530,000

Finance                                          558,000

Human Resources                         303,000

Legal                                              420,000

Info technology                              872,000

Communications                            229,000

Law Library                                    144,000

Geo. Info. Systems                        143,000

Property Management                    15,000

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Total                                             4,788,300

The amount the county generates in property tax only comes to $4.73 million.  So how can we pay even for these mandatory services, let alone any public safety at all?  The answer is the ISF, which contributes another $3.7m to our budget, by taking 10% from the overall budget in exchange for providing the services discussed above.

The catch in this process is that state and federal regulations, while allowing the charge, also require that application of the charge be consistent and across the board to all affected departments and programs. We cannot charge a passthrough-funded program and not charge our own. The result may seem incongruous but by going through such compliance, the County is able to collect a total of $9 million, the majority of which is passthrough money, otherwise unavailable.

To the “low information voter” this may appear to be a shell game. But we are running the game, not playing. The money transfers via the ISF are purely to our advantage and the popular criticisms they have generated in some quarters are ill-conceived.

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