End of the line

Counties facing financial collapse cannot complain if state steps in

Local government officials outraged that the state might take over insolvent counties should save their breath — and use it instead to campaign for tax levies to prevent their counties from sinking into insolvency. It is appropriate for the state to step in if the alternative is the complete collapse of civil government.

For now, we're speaking primarily about Curry and Jospehine counties — the two closest to financial ruin. But eight counties, including Jackson, are identified in a Secretary of State's Office audit as being at risk of insolvency. The audit did note that Jackson County is in the best shape of the eight — for a few more years. Besides Jackson, Josephine and Curry, the list includes Coos, Klamath, Lane, Douglas and Polk.

House Bill 3453 would allow the governor to declare an emergency and levy new taxes on residents of an insolvent county to pay for police or other vital services.

The mayors and city councils of Curry County's three cities have gone on record opposing the bill. In a letter to Gov. John Kitzhaber, the mayors of Brookings, Gold Beach and Port Orford express fears that the legislation might allow the state to dissolve city governments or divert city resources to provide county services. City residents would therefore lose local control, the letter argues.

Curry County residents — whether they live in or outside of those cities — have a chance to show they are responsible enough to exercise that local control by voting in favor of a public safety levy on the May 21 ballot that would continue to fund law enforcement. If they don't, the state may have no choice but to step in.

Curry County residents pay the second-lowest property tax rate in the state — just 60 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. That once was enough, because proceeds from the sale of timber from former O&C Railroad lands in the county paid for county services.

That money is gone now, and Curry County residents and government officials have known for years that this day was coming. But they have refused to pay enough in taxes to become self-sufficient.

It is easy to gripe about government, which can be inefficient, overbearing and bureaucratic. But it is one thing to complain about it and try to change it for the better, and something else again to get rid of it entirely.

Contributing one's share to the common good is the responsibility of everyone who lives in a modern society. At a minimum, basic levels of public safety, roads, electricity and communications depend on at least some government.

The state has an interest in ensuring that individual counties do not descend into anarchy.

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