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Jackson County escapes state's 'distressed' list

Jackson County's financial situation has improved enough for it to be taken off a state list of distressed counties, but several neighboring counties — Josephine, Douglas and Curry — remain on the list.

In 2014, nine counties were on the list, including Jackson County. That's now down to four — the three Southern Oregon counties and Polk County, which includes the cities of Monmouth and Dallas west of Salem. Others that moved off the distressed list are Coos, Lane, Linn and Columbia counties.

"Our review found that a recovering economy and some strategic cost-cutting measures by our local governments has decreased the number of counties on our watch list from nine to four. This is encouraging news," said Oregon Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins.

The Secretary of State Audits Division released its review of the financial condition of counties this month.

Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan gave much of the credit for the county's improved finances to local residents, who voted in May 2014 to raise their own property taxes to create a library funding district and an extension service district.

"In addition to sound financial management and many creative actions to fund services, one of the most recent primary developments and reasons Jackson County no longer belongs on the list is because the citizens created and supported funding for a new library district and the extension service district," Jordan said.

Jackson County's permanent property tax rate — which does not include the voter-approved special funding districts — is $2.01 per $1,000 in assessed property value. It has the 14th lowest permanent tax rate out of the state's 36 counties.

Meanwhile, Josephine County has the lowest permanent property tax rate at 59 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. Curry County is second lowest at 60 cents per $1,000, Coos County is third lowest at $1.08, Douglas County is fourth lowest at $1.11, and Linn County is fifth lowest at $1.27.

Like other timber-dependent counties, Jackson County took a major hit from logging cutbacks on federal land.

Timber revenue shared with Jackson County peaked at $17.2 million in the 1989-90 fiscal year. For the current fiscal year, the county has budgeted to receive $2 million, Jordan said.

The state audit lists Jackson County among 10 counties that ate into their reserves from 2010 to 2015.

Faced with the national economic downturn and declining timber revenues, Jackson County used its reserve funds to support services such as development services, libraries and the extension service. It also invested in new buildings and remodeling projects, Jordan said.

He said the building investments helped reduce operating expenses.

"At the same time, we got very good bids and kept the construction industry afloat during very hard times," Jordan said.

Jackson County officials are working to rebuild reserve funds and hope to someday have enough reserves that the money can act as an endowment — bringing in interest income and allowing officials to trim property taxes.

All four counties on the new watch list of financially distressed counties are among the 10 counties that spend the least per capita on public safety. Jackson County spent the 12th least on public safety spending.

Polk County officials are arguing their county doesn't belong on the new watch list because voters there passed a public safety levy in May 2015.

Among the southwest Oregon counties of Jackson, Josephine, Klamath, Douglas, Curry and Coos Counties, Jackson County has the lowest unemployment figure at 5.4 percent as of April. Klamath County is worst in the area at 6.7 percent, according to the Oregon Employment Department.

In statewide rankings of personal income, Jackson County did well at $37,637 per capita, putting it 13th out of 36 counties, the state audit found.

Coos County was 18th, Curry County was 22nd, Douglas County was 25th, Josephine County was 32nd and Klamath County was 33rd.

Malheur County in far southeast Oregon was worst with $27,661 in per capita income. Sherman County, home to a massive windmill project near the Columbia River, was best with $58,011 in per capita income.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.