Oregon Counties Vote on Public Safety, Jail Levies

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — On May 21, residents in three Oregon timber counties voted on tax levies that would restore major cuts to law enforcement and jail capacities as a result of the expiration of a long-term federal subsidy, and only one passed.

Residents in all three counties pay some of the lowest property tax rates in the states and have continued to refuse to raise taxes.

Lane County voters passed a five-year public safety levy — 56 percent to 43 percent — and it will bring in $14.5 million in the first year to be used towards increasing the jail capacity. In Curry County, voters rejected a five-year levy — 56 percent to 44 percent — that would have brought in $4 million in the first year. And in Josephine County, a three-year levy starting at $9.1 million a year was rejected 51 percent to 49 percent.

Prior to the expiration of the federal subsidy, timber counties were paid millions of dollars for lost revenues from logging cut on national forests to protect fish and wildlife. Since funding stopped though, crime rates have escalated due to a lack of law enforcement: fewer deputies are sent on 911 calls, jails release inmates sooner and sometimes there’s no one to even prosecute criminals.

In Josephine County, for instance, the sheriff had to lay off 23 deputies and eliminated the entire major crimes division. The sheriff even issued a press release warning victims of domestic violence to relocate to an area that could provide more adequate law enforcement services, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting.

The levies are seen as a “temporary solution to the funding gap left by the expiration of the Secure Rural Schools Act, which provided $105 million to Oregon in 2012,” reported The Associated Press. Others hope that the area will be funded again due to increased logging on federal forests; however, legislative efforts to do so have been refused by Congress.

With insufficient funding, Josephine and Curry counties face bankruptcy issues. In fact, legislature is considering bills that would allow the state to take over (and even levy taxes) if the counties go broke.