One more time

Josephine County tries again to get voters to pay for basic public safety

Josephine County voters decided last year they could live without a fully functional criminal justice system when they turned down a tax measure that would have kept the jail operating at full capacity. They will get a chance to restore part of that system this spring when county officials try again to pass a criminal justice levy, but it won't restore rural patrols and it won't cover the whole county.

If Josephine County voters say no again, they shouldn't expect any help from the state or from neighboring counties, including this one.

Josephine County Commissioners last week voted to form a permanent law enforcement district with a maximum tax rate of $1.85 per $1,000 of assessed value. The vote was required under state law before the matter can be put before the voters on the May 21 ballot. The county also must hold the second of two public hearings.

The county, which boasts the lowest property tax rate in the state at 58 cents per thousand, asked voters last May to pass a levy of $1.99 per thousand. The measure failed, forcing the county to release 39 inmates from its jail, reducing its jail capacity to 60 inmates, half of those federal prisoners held under contract.

County officials managed to scrape up enough money to add back some beds in September, but that move is only temporary. Another stopgap move borrowed $425,000 from the county's $1 million road fund to pay for three patrol deputies through June of 2013. One county official reasoned it was easier to dodge a pothole than a bullet.

Josephine County relied for years on federal timber payments, which were replaced by direct subsidies when timber harvests plunged. Congress reduced those payments gradually and then ended them, making the final payments last year.

Jackson County has not had to take such drastic measures because it began cutting expenses and banking federal payments years ago. This county's tax base also is considerably larger at $2 per thousand.

Josephine County's proposed taxing district won't pay for patrols — and it won't include Cave Junction, where the City Council has voted not to be part of the district.

Cave Junction, which pays for a contract deputy, has a clear right under the law to opt out, and Sheriff Gil Gilbertson says whoever the deputy arrests would be jailed. Town residents also pay the 16 cents per thousand jail bond levy. But the fact remains that a county that refuses to pay for basic services now includes a town that refuses to pay even if the county does.

It's easy to rail against government and taxes, but part of living in a modern society is accepting the need to provide a basic level of public services, including a place to lock up lawbreakers.

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