Voters in three Oregon counties have rejected property tax increases to fund public safety services and jails. The levies in Curry, Polk, and Columbia counties would have made up for cuts to federal timber aid and low revenues.
In Curry County on Oregon’s south coast, voters soundly defeated their safety levy, leaving the county $2 million short of what’s needed next year for the jail and six deputies.
The county has one of the lowest local tax rates in Oregon at $0.60 per $1,000 of assessed property value. Commissioner David Itzen says the county may try one last time to pass a safety levy next May.
“We’re definitely looking at the end of the road financially, unless something is approved by the voters,” he said. “Or, we end up having to implement House Bill 3453,” he said.
HB 3453 allows Gov. John Kitzhaber to declare a safety emergency in troubled counties. Essential public services would be paid for by a combination of state aid and a local income tax surcharge imposed on county residents.
Local officials say a safety levy also failed in the Mid-Wilamette Valley’s Polk County. And election staff in northwest Oregon’s Columbia County say voters rejected a tax measure that would have increased staffing at the county jail to avoid the early release of prisoners.
Since 2000, Oregon counties have received a total of more than $2.8 billion in federal support through the Secure Rural Schools program, which aids counties with large tracts of federal forest.
Congress has ramped down funding of the program and allowed it to lapse in recent years. In September, Congress passed an extension of Secure Rural Schools that will provide roughly $100 million to counties in Oregon, $20 million to counties in Washington, and $25 million to counties in Idaho.
Officials in Oregon’s timber counties say the one-year extension is helpful but not sufficient to resolve their annual budget shortfalls.