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Walker moves ahead with a la carte levy approach

Although Josephine County voters have struck down four property tax levies to fund public safety in four years, Commissioner Cherryl Walker believes putting four more on the May ballot might do the trick.

Instead of opting for a single levy request to fund county jail operations, sheriff patrols, district attorneys and the juvenile justice center, the commissioner — who's up for re-election this year — wants to attach each component to a different ballot measure.

And because federal payments for public safety are set to run out in June 2017, Walker says, it's urgent for Josephine County voters to approve a funding solution by May.

That's because tax bills come due each October. Wait for the November election to pass a levy, she says, and the county can't collect tax revenue for nearly a year. Instead, the county would have to rely on the meager $3.7 million it generates from what is the lowest property tax rate in Oregon.

That's the entirety of the county's general fund and may not be enough to operate the jail, at least at present capacity, let alone the entire sheriff's office, Walker says.

"What are we supposed to do? Am I going to sit here and let the jail go away?" Walker says.

When Walker introduced the idea to fellow commissioners Keith Heck and Simon Hare, the three discussed the polarization that tax levies have in Josephine County. Several commissioner candidates repeatedly have touted "no new taxes" as a campaign slogan.

During a meeting last Tuesday, she brushed off the notion that tax talk is a political liability.

"Is my re-election more important than the citizens of Josephine County and the viability of Josephine County? No," she said.

Although they haven't endorsed Walker's a la carte approach to fund public safety, Hare and Heck gave her the green light to gather more information for an official proposal.

Now, Walker is figuring out the measures' nuts and bolts. She has met with County Finance Director Arthur O'Hare to talk dollars and cents and will consult Sheriff Dave Daniel on his needs by Jan. 15.

Offering four distinct levies to fund public safety was Walker's way of reconciling voter concerns with similar past proposals — that the ballot measures' language didn't properly convey how the money would be used.

Hare shared a similar sentiment during Tuesday's meeting.

"It's a creative idea. It has not been tried before," he says. "And it satisfies an element of people who are saying, 'I want my money to go to this.' "

The three commissioners are under increasing pressure to find a permanent funding structure for the county's criminal justice system.

Federal timber receipts funded the lion's share of county services until the 1990s. When the government scaled back logging, it replaced receipts with subsidies to make up the difference.

Congress began phasing out the subsidies in 2011, which forced a glut of layoffs at the sheriff's office, among other agencies.

Dwindling payments since then have forced more service cuts as residents have repeatedly voted against raising Josephine County's base property tax rate of 58 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, the lowest in Oregon.

There is precedent for the a la carte approach: the animal control levy of 8 cents per $1,000 of assessed value that voters passed in 2014.

Walker cites that levy as an example of voters approving measures that have concise language. She also cites the results: 1,100 pets adopted in 2015; 700 cats and dogs spayed or neutered; and more personnel to tend to everyday operations.

That's responsible stewardship of taxpayer money, Walker says.

"I think the animal shelter demonstrates that," she says. "If we can get a couple of the levies passed and we can get that money in place, then maybe we can get some others passed in the future."

In their last few meetings, Hare, Heck and Walker have asserted that federal payments for public safety will further decrease or disappear altogether. In her State of the County address last week, Walker said Oregon's congressional delegation has said "they're not interested in pursuing legislation" to extend or renew the subsidies as they are.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley told an audience at Grants Pass High School Thursday that he'll push Congress to fulfill its obligations to Josephine County, but Walker maintains the uncertainty of when that relief will come — and how much Washington, D.C., is willing to send — as why she's proposing the a la carte funding proposal.

"It doesn't do us any favors because the payment keeps declining," Walker said. "When you're getting $4 million and your budget's $9 million, it doesn't go very far."

In the meantime, the lack of guaranteed public safety funding leaves Josephine County in a bind — federal cash is keeping the lights on at the jail, and the subsidies run out June 30, 2017.

If the county doesn't have a funding structure by then, the commissioners have discussed only one alternative: handing the reins to the state.

House Bill 3453, approved in 2013, allows the governor to call a state of emergency and take over public safety operations in Oregon's counties. Then-Gov. John Kitzhaber rallied behind the legislation explicitly because of funding issues in Josephine and neighboring Curry County.

If triggered, the state takeover would invite a mess of cooks into the proverbial kitchen to decide the public safety budget. Those folks include:

• The governor

• Leadership from both chambers of the Legislature, including the House speaker and Senate president

• Senators and representatives whose districts include Josephine County, six in all

Once all of those state officials decide on a budget, county commissioners and the sheriff get to chime in.

The most disconcerting thing about this proposal, all three commissioners say, is that it's almost guaranteed to raise taxes in Josephine County. The state would shoulder 50 percent of the burden, passing the other half of the bill to county taxpayers.

"It's meant as the last-ditch effort stopgap before you shut down a jail," Hare says.

In the meantime, Walker and her colleagues have acknowledged that tax levies are unpopular with voters and opponents for her seat on the board.

"We have 18 months to get it done," Walker said during her State of the County address. "I'm open to any suggestions."

Reach reporter Eder Campuzano at 541-474-3722 or ecampuzano@thedailycourier.com.