This month several Oregon counties, teetering on the edge of insolvency, are asking the legislature for help. Formerly thriving counties in timber country are preparing for deep cutbacks, and a new relationship between county, state, and citizen. April Baer reports from Curry County, on the Oregon Coast.
For some people, the dismantling of Curry County has already started. Daryl Robison gestures across his cranberry farm in the tiny Curry County community of Sixes. A few months back, the vandalism started.
Daryl Robison explains, “People had cut the fence wire down, come in through the back door. I have a gas tank over there, they stole the gas. They broke into my shop, stole power cords, drills, power saws, pressure washers and those kinds of things.”
The vandalism made him fume.
Robison said, “And so then I called into the police.”
By police, he means the Sheriff’s department. Like many people in Curry County, Robison lives on unincorporated land.
Daryl said,”The police said, we don’t have anyone in that area, we’ll send someone up tomorrow.”
After two more break-ins, Robison installed his own security system and waited at his house nearby.
“So when the alarm went off, I’m shooting down sixes as fast as I can go, and we found ‘em. And we caught ‘em,” Robinson said.
Robison and his son-in-law blocked off the road with their cars until they could get the sheriff’s department to come get the five kids who’d broken in.
“I told the police when I called 911, ‘There has been shots fired’. There had not, but we had to have a response. There were five people here, and we could easily get over our head,” he said.
This do-it-yourself climate is the new reality for Curry County’s 22,000 residents.
The county’s budget is projected to be $3 million in the hole July 1. Curry is one of about a dozen so-called O&C Counties. These counties are prohibited from taxing or harvesting their vast federal forest lands. Until this year, the federal government paid them millions of dollars in compensation. But as that money sunsets, local leaders are taking drastic measures just to maintain basic services.
Curry County Commissioner David Itzen explained, “I’m speculating there will be no funding — zero funding — for Curry County road deputies starting July 1st.”
One of the first steps Itzen and his colleagues took was to cut services like the County animal shelter, that’s now operating as an independent non-profit. The entire Health and Human Services department will get the same treatment next. And still Itzen says the county faces another massive reduction this summer.
Itzen said, “We’ll have to terminate the employment of 48 of our employees out of 78 paid out of our general fund.”
Itzen’s colleague, Commissioner Bill Waddle, says he’s well aware the voters want them to trim county government. But he warns the summer cutbacks only address the county’s immediate fiscal problem.
Waddle asked, “All that does is postpone the inevitable. Because there’s nothing in there for building up a reserve again for any kind of major maintenance. Does it allow for the cost of doing business? No? Does it allow for any kind of emergencies?”
And emergencies happen in Curry County, as Sheriff John Bishop can tell you.
Bishop directed the effort last week to find three mushroom hunters who spent six days lost in the woods.
John Bishop said, “I believe we did 28 missions last year.”
Of course, not all were as big as this one.
“Today we have about 60 searchers. I probably have half my department out here,” Bishop explained.
Sheriff Bishop doesn’t pay most of these people out of his own budget — many are volunteers — but he still stands accountable for the time and overtime he spends on rescues.
Bishop said, “With what happens this summer, who knows what’s going to happen with something like this in the future?”
Curry County’s dazzling beauty and low property tax rate attract a healthy crop of retirees. Voters here are historically resistant to tax increases.
Brookings resident Sandra JoJo says she’s voted against such things before, and would do so again. Relaxing on a Friday afternoon at the dockside Voodoo Lounge, this silver-haired widow says local leaders need to think twice before asking voters for more money.
JoJo said, “Property owners are the ones who have to pay. Everything else has been going up. The town needs help in this area. Put it off for at least six months to a year.”
But with the end of the fiscal year just months away, there’s a great deal of pressure on Curry County to act sooner - not later. The state is deciding which mandated services it can afford to take over. Legislators are considering a request to let the counties re-direct road maintenance money to shore up their general funds.
Oregon’s counties can’t declare bankruptcy. That’s because of the way Oregon’s constitution is written. That raises a lot of questions about how the state would handle a penniless Curry County.
Here’s just one. When Curry County makes its layoffs, it will have to pay a million dollars into the state unemployment insurance trust fund. It’s not entirely clear where that money will come from. Tom Fuller, a spokesman for the Oregon Employment Department.
Fuller explained, “We are in uncharted territory. We’re not really sure what’s going to happen. The attorney general’s office, we asked them for an opinion. They really don’t know. The law is pretty silent at this point about what might happen with an insolvent county that would owe money to the unemployment insurance trust fund.”
Fuller says the Employment Department’s in a bind. Administrators want to work with Curry County, but also have a responsibility to keep their fund solvent. And what if other counties like Josephine and Lane County find themselves in a similar fix next fiscal year, as some are projecting?
Other state entities, like Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System, may find themselves in a similar, awkward relationship with fiscally-strapped counties, unless something changes. State leaders are unlikely to approve contingency plans unless Curry County has a plan to repay diverted funds — like the road maintenance money.
In Curry County, residents pay $0.60 for every $1000 of their property’s value. That’s substantially lower than cash-poor places like Baker and Malheur Counties, which assess four to six times as much, respectively.
Bob Horel was part of a citizens’ committee that recently presented Curry County Commissioners with 19 recommendations for cutting spending and raising revenue.
“The library districts collect more money than the county does,” Horel said.
Horel said, “In general the taxes are not that much lower here than in other places — except for the county tax! The cities have adequate funding, is my sense for their police departments and city functions. They’re not rich. The only real issue is the county.”
The committee proposed that the county take a serious look at asking voters to approve a sales tax, perhaps in November. Thousands of people pass through. They drive by on Highway 101. They come to Brookings to fish, or visit for other reasons - all without supporting county services.
As Horel looks around, the sun glints off windows of million-dollar homes surrounding the Brookings harbor.
Down on the docks, crab boats and sport fishing charters bob in the sun. But he’s worried. No one source of funding can provide the answer for Curry, or the other counties that face structural funding problems.
The Congressional delegation is working on a forest management plan designed to benefit O&C counties, but it’s unlikely to be ready by summer.
Daryl Robison, the Curry County farmer who patrols his own property, says he’s deeply worried about what’s ahead. He’s not sure he’ll see faster police response anytime soon, with the state taking over some services.
Robison said, “I can see a major change in control if the funds aren’t available. There’s going to be no alternative, I believe.”
Robison says he’s not really in favor of something like a sales tax. But now, he says, he’s thinking about voting for it.