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MailTribune.com
  • Surcharge a non-starter in voter poll

    Jackson County services threatened as budget proposal soundly opposed
  • The results are clear: A majority of respondents to a Jackson County poll say they would not support a surcharge to help fill county budget shortfalls.
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  • The results are clear: A majority of respondents to a Jackson County poll say they would not support a surcharge to help fill county budget shortfalls.
    In a phone survey of 500 likely voters — those who voted in at least two of the past four elections — 57 percent said they opposed the surcharge, while 31 percent were in favor and 11 percent undecided. The primary reason cited by those in opposition to the surcharge was the cost, with many saying they could not afford it, county officials said Tuesday.
    The initial proposed cost of the surcharge was $7 per month, although the amount eventually could have climbed to as much as $10 per month.
    A county news release noted that the survey results were the same "regardless of political affiliation, age, gender and place of residence."
    Jackson County Commissioner Don Skundrick proposed the surcharge in May to avoid cutting general fund support for sheriff's patrols, veterans' services, health and human services, the Oregon State University Extension Service and county libraries.
    "I'm disappointed," Skundrick said Tuesday. "There's no doubt about that. I'm trying to look for solutions to an issue here, and this, I thought was an opportunity. Not a perfect solution, but a solution nevertheless."
    As proposed, the surcharge would cost $7 per household or business address per month for the first five years. After that, the surcharge would not exceed $10 a month.
    County officials said that based on recent estimates from the U.S. Postal Service, there would be about 101,000 billable addresses. Payments, which would be assessed quarterly, would go to support the Jackson County Jail operations, in turn freeing up funds for the county's general fund, which supports a wide variety of programs and services.
    The news was distressing to Maureen Swift with the Friends of the Library, but, she said, somewhat expected.
    "As a long-term solution for library funding, this probably wouldn't have been it," Swift said. "It might have been a stop-gap."
    She added that the county's 14 branch libraries are now one step closer to closure unless an alternative funding method is found. The county's budget committee said the libraries must find additional funding sources by the 2014-15 fiscal year, or all branches but Medford will close. If the trend continued, the Medford Library would close the following fiscal year.
    "We literally have less than a year to try and figure out what to do. This doesn't give us a lot of time," Swift said.
    Jack Duggan, chairman of the recently formed Friends of Research and Extension, said the group has remained neutral on the surcharge proposal. They are currently working on getting on the May 2014 ballot, where voters would either pass or shoot down a special service district that would help fund the OSU Extension Service. Fundraising efforts are also under way.
    "If we're going to put out energy for a ballot measure, we want to make it specific to the extension," Duggan said.
    The county had budgeted just over $204,000 for the Extension Service before the cuts were announced. That represents only about 11 percent of its operations budget, but Extension Service officials say state and federal funding is dependent in part on local support. The agency operates such programs as 4-H and Master Gardeners.
    Rather than immediately cut all of the programs at risk, the Board of Commissioners approved six months of general fund support. In addition to the Extension Service, that provided a temporary reprieve for public health programs, the county's wildlife services officer, communications and marketing, payments to Rogue Valley Council of Governments, veterans services and the county's contract for televising its meetings on Rogue Valley Television. If additional revenues are not found by the end of 2013, funding for those programs for the second half of the fiscal year would be eliminated.
    While supporters of the programs at risk wondered what the future will hold, some were happy to see the results of the poll.
    Anton Pedersen of Central Point, told the board in June that he did not support the surcharge. He added the board members and county administrators should look to cutting their own salaries and benefits instead, a strategy he sees fit for all levels of government.
    "It seems to me that the hierarchy of our government, that goes clear into (President) Obama as well as the commissioners and the state ... they take care of themselves, make sure that they have their income, their benefits and things of this nature, and they do nothing to curb those," Pedersen, 83, said. "They maintain their level of benefits. At the same time, the general taxpayer has to adjust and take care of what they can."
    Because the surcharge is a fee and not a general tax, the Board of Commissioners could impose it without putting it before the county's voters. But commissioners Doug Breidenthal and John Rachor both have said they would not support the surcharge unless voters approved it.
    The Board of Commissioners will discuss the survey results at its July 10 meeting, which will begin at 9:30 a.m. at the Jackson County Courthouse Auditorium, 10 S. Oakdale Ave., Medford.
    "We'll deliberate," Skundrick said. "The numbers are bad enough that I think that this particular proposal's a dead deal."
    Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com.
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