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Voters share credit for county finances

Jackson County and its residents received some well-deserved credit when the Oregon Secretary of State's Audits Division released a new list of economically distressed counties this month.

Jackson County is one of five counties no longer on the list. Others taken off the list were Coos, Lane, Linn and Columbia counties.

Much of the rest of the Southern Oregon region remains in financially perilous condition. Josephine, Curry and Douglas counties are three of the four counties still on the distressed list; Polk County is the fourth.

The report considers a number of factors in determining financial distress, including local support for government funding, fund balances, public safety spending and overall economic indicators such as unemployment rates and per-capita income. The four counties still on the list are among the 10 counties that spend the least on public safety.

Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan praised county residents for voting in 2014 to create taxing districts to support public libraries and the Extension Service. That community support distinguishes this county from the others still on the list, including Josephine and Curry, where residents repeatedly refused to raise taxes to support sheriff's patrols. Jackson County voter approval this year for community college and bus services underscores that distinction.

Jackson County was never in quite the same circumstance as those other counties, by virtue of its higher permanent tax rate. Jackson County property owners pay a permanent rate of $2.01 per $1,000 of assessed value — 14th among Oregon's 36 counties. Josephine has the lowest in the state at 59 cents, Curry second lowest at 60 cents and Douglas fourth lowest at $1.11.

There is also a case to be made that Jackson County probably didn't belong on the list in the first place for another reason.

Jackson County was included on the list in 2014, when it was among 10 counties that ate into their reserves between 2010 and 2015 to weather the recession and compensate for declining federal timber revenues. But Jackson County didn't just spend those reserves, it put the money to work by investing in building projects that will end up returning more than was spent. Those include the human services building in downtown Medford that rents space to a variety of state agencies, and a jail expansion that recovered its costs by renting out beds to house federal prisoners.

At the same time, as Jordan pointed out, those projects provided construction jobs when they were hard to come by — a benefit of public spending for which government deserves more credit than it often gets.

Any way you look at it, Jackson County is on more solid financial footing than its neighbors. County residents and government leaders alike share the credit for that.