Starting this week, between 500 and 600 Jackson County voters will be surveyed over the phone about their thoughts on a proposed jail surcharge that would help fill a $6.8 million general fund shortfall.
County officials say the proposal, drafted by Board of Commissioners Chairman Don Skundrick, would go on the November ballot if results show support for the plan.
If not, it won't go any further, and cuts to numerous county departments — including Health and Human Services, the Sheriff's Department and the libraries — would go into effect.
"It's not actually finalized yet, even finalized if we're going to do it," Skundrick said in a meeting with the Mail Tribune editorial board.
Skundrick's fellow commissioners Doug Breidenthal and John Rachor have both expressed concern over the proposal, saying they would support it only if it's first approved by county voters. Because it's a fee, the county could impose it without a vote if two commissioners supported the idea.
Area residents who oppose it have said they consider it another tax.
"I'm hearing from some folks, "You're back-dooring me on a tax and I don't like that," Skundrick said.
At this point, Skundrick said, he's far from certain about the potential for success.
"A betting man, right now, I wouldn't put my house on it," he said.
But library and Oregon State University Extension Service supporters have expressed support for the surcharge, as both operations are facing potential elimination. If the fee is not approved, county officials say, cuts will eliminate funding for all but the main Medford library next year and for all libraries the following year. The Extension Service — including programs such as 4-H and Master Gardeners — would lose its county funding, which extension officials say would also result in the loss of state and federal funding and the ultimate closure of the programs.
The surcharge would fund the Jackson County Jail, and free up general funds that could be redirected to other programs. Skundrick said revenue from the fee would be directed toward the jail operation because it is a countywide service.
"Go to Lane, Coos and Josephine counties and see the impacts of inadequate jail space," Skundrick said.
If the measure does pass, each business, home, and apartment would be billed every three months through the mail. Current estimates from the U.S. Postal Service point to about 101,000 such units in the county. County officials also hope to make online payments available.
"Our system has the capability to do all that," said County Administrator Danny Jordan, noting that the county likely would add two staff positions to handle the fee processing.
The surcharge would be $7 a month — or $84 annually — plus cost of living adjustments, for the first five years. After that, the surcharge would be limited to a maximum of $10 a month. The fee would not be able to exceed that, and the board can choose to reduce the fee anytime it wants, Skundrick said.
Some of the push back, Skundrick and Jordan said, has come from people with multiple business operations or living units. A business property, for instance, that housed three separate businesses, would be charged the fee three times. Unoccupied apartments would be a landlord's responsibility to pay.
There would be an appeals process for those who dispute their bills, and a waiver process for low-income people. Those who are able to pay and fail to do so would have their debt sent to an outside collections agency, which could affect individual credit scores.
In May, the board authorized six months of general fund support for several county programs that had been scheduled for large — in some case total — cuts. The programs include the Extension Service, the county's contract with Rogue Valley Television for broadcasting meetings, veteran's services and public health. If the fee is not enacted, the funding for those programs and others would be cut for the second half of the year.
The county has already been cutting: Over the past half-dozen years, county full-time equivalent positions have dropped from 1,075 to 836. The approved budget for 2013-14 represents a reduction of 44 positions compared with the current year's budget.
Skundrick and Jordan said the proposed surcharge is intended to close the gap on budget shortfalls stemming from cuts in federal timber payments, a decline in the property tax base and reduced returns on investments during the recent economic slowdown.
Additionally, state mandated payments to the Public Employee Retirement System grew by $1.8 million for the county for the coming fiscal year alone.
"There was a strong feeling in the budget committee it was really time to take a stand," Skundrick said. "We'd burn through the remaining reserves in two more budget cycles and then we'd be like our neighbors. The budget committee didn't want to go there."
The "neighbors" Skundrick referred to are people in Josephine County, which has twice defeated public safety levies and as a result has drastically cut back on jail beds and beginning in July will no longer have road deputies.
Of the $6.8 million shortfall in Jackson County, officials say about $5 million is related to library expenses. If the surcharge is not approved, the county's 14 satellite libraries would be closed next year and if new revenues were not found after that, the main library in Medford would be closed the following year.
Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.