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Latest attempt at public safety levy targets specific needs

The private citizens group Community United for Safety kicked off a signature-gathering drive on Thursday, aiming at 2,800 signatures by the end of the month to get a public safety levy request on the May ballot.

As proposed, the five-year levy would cost taxpayers $1.40 per $1,000 of assessed property value. A home with an assessed value of $158,625, the median assessed value in the county, would see its property tax increase by $222 a year, or $18.50 a month. Because of voter-approved property tax limits approved nearly 20 years ago, assessed values are generally about 17 percent lower than market values countywide, although each property is unique.

Signature gatherers plan to brave the cold with tables set up in the parking lot at the corner of Seventh and J streets from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day between now and the end of the month.

The group — created last year and led by Scott Draper, general manager of Club Northwest — three months ago hired a research firm from California to poll local residents in search of what it would take to get a levy approved by voters.

The county has seen drastic cuts in law enforcement, as well as closure of the Juvenile Justice Center, as federal timber subsidies have declined from more than $12 million in 2008 to $4.8 million this year. Unless Congress acts quickly, there will be no subsidy money available when the new fiscal year begins on July 1.

The research firm contracted by Community United for Safety conducted telephone interviews with residents from across the county. The polling indicated 53 percent of residents would support a levy, depending on how much it was for and what services it would provide. CUFS then tailored its proposal based on the research results.

The deadline to submit a minimum of 2,038 valid signatures to place the measure on the May ballot is Feb. 18, according to County Clerk Art Harvey. But, he added, the community group appears to be erring on the side of caution, giving itself extra time to make sure there are enough valid signatures.

Public safety levy requests have failed in May elections during each of the past three years. Representatives of the citizens group attribute past failures to measures created by county officials who didn't take into consideration what residents want and how to assure accountability.

"This is the first time for this kind of levy," said Cliff Thomason, a local real estate agent, who is among the volunteers at the signature gathering booth at the Seventh and J streets location.

"This measure is community and business leader driven and put forth by citizens. I am confident this will provide what the people want in law enforcement," he said.

If it makes it to the ballot, and is approved by voters, the 2015 Josephine County Public Safety Measure would:

• Provide funding for 16 sheriff's deputies, including patrol vehicles, and four dispatchers.

• Increase jail capacity to 160 beds to keep those accused of violent crimes in jail as they await trial.

• Re-open the Juvenile Justice Center.

• Create a better economic climate by improving public safety throughout the county.

Additionally, to ensure accountability, a Citizens' Oversight Committee would be created, and an annual independent audit performed, with findings made public, according to Thomason.

Grants Pass resident Richard Barak, 71, couldn't help but stop to sign a petition as he drove up Seventh Street Thursday morning. Barak said he'd heard the group was working on a proposed levy and it was important for him to add his name to the petition.

After recently moving from the Sacramento area, Barak, a retired credit manager, was astonished to find public safety wasn't a "given" as he'd come to expect in other places he has lived.

"It seems very odd to me that the federal government's first job is protecting its citizens from dangers foreign and domestic and yet the local government and community would see the safety of its citizens as an option," he said. "It's incomprehensible."

Reach Daily Courier reporter Ruth Longoria Kingsland at 541-474-3718 or rkingsland@thedailycourier.com