Ore. timber counties could see more levy votes

Ore. timber counties could see more levy votes
Fred Martin of Grants Pass, Ore., casts his Josephine County ballot Tuesday, May 21, 2013 in Grants Pass, Ore. Josephine is one of three counties asking voters to approve tax increases to pay for law enforcement after deep cuts to federal subsidies to timber counties forced budget cuts that have reduced sheriff's patrols, reduced jail capacities, and cut prosecutors. (AP Photo/Jeff Barnard)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Commissioners from two southern Oregon counties that rejected public safety levies last week say they may give voters an opportunity to reconsider.

Officials from Curry and Josephine counties told a state legislative task force on Wednesday that they'll consider going back to the ballot in coming months. The loss of federal timber subsidies has left the counties with bare-bones jails and police services, significantly limiting the resources available to arrest, lock up and prosecute lawbreakers.

Josephine County Commissioner Cherryl Walker said she was encouraged that a proposal to raise property taxes for public safety lost by just 2 percentage points last week. The county may refer another levy to the ballot next May, she said.

The county is working on the attracting new businesses and employment opportunities, Walker said, but she's concerned an eroding public safety infrastructure will complicate those efforts.

"The public safety thing right now, we look at it as a temporary bump in the road, and we're working very hard to solve that problem," Walker said.

Josephine County's unemployment rate was 11.1 percent in April, compared with 8 percent statewide. The population is also older than average, with many living on fixed incomes and tight budgets.

After the failure of the levy that would have restored $9.1 million in cuts to public safety, the county's Budget Committee has approved a spending plan that eliminates sheriff's patrols, but keeps the jail open for another year.

The Grants Pass Daily Courier reported that the committee unanimously adopted a $4 million public safety budget, which includes the sheriff's office, the district attorney's office, juvenile justice and other services. That compares to $12 million two years ago, before the expiration of a federal subsidy for timber counties that had allowed the county to keep its tax rate the lowest in the state.

The committee gave the sheriff's office an extra $312,000 from the general fund to keep the jail capacity at 100 beds, and $54,000 to the district attorney's office for a part-time prosecutor.

Curry County Commissioner David Brock Smith told the legislative task force by telephone that his county will be able to keep the jail open in part by using 911 dispatchers to monitor prison activity and unlock doors for corrections deputies.

The commission will consider trying again to pass a public safety levy in September, he said.

Lane County voters did approve a public safety levy last week for the first time in decades. Commissioner Jay Bozievich said the levy was successful in part because officials carefully planned, strategized and researched. Polling showed how much people would be willing to spend and commissioners targeted the money for services that would benefit the whole community, not just rural areas, he said.

"We're going to do everything in our power to maintain those jail beds we promised and the youth services," Bozievich said.

The Legislature is looking at giving the governor and legislative leaders authority to declare a public safety emergency in certain counties, allowing them to impose a temporary income-tax surcharge with the permission of county commissioners.

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Associated Press writer Jeff Barnard contributed from Grants Pass, Ore.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.