By Jim Raffenburg
Josephine County Commissioner
Josephine County, OR – Why are your local elected leaders asking you to vote for a Criminal Justice System levy when everyone in this county knows levy requests don’t pass here?
Why? Because the Federal Government has walked away from a century-old financial obligation to timber counties throughout the West.
The Forest Reserve Act of 1908 and the O&C Act of 1937 both require the Federal Government to manage our forests for timber harvests and revenue creation. The Forest Reserve Act of 1908 requires the Forest Service to pay 25% of the net from those timber revenues to local counties. The O&C Act is more specific, requiring that BLM management of the O&C lands be primarily for timber harvests (and revenues) that are “…for the economic benefit of the (O&C) counties…” and provided that 50% of those revenues go to the counties.
For all practical purposes, beginning in the early 1990’s, timber harvesting stopped on those Federal lands and the shared revenues from those timber sales, which provided the funding for the majority of county government services, also stopped.
In 1994, Congress began compensating timber counties, for the Federal failure to harvest timber, with legislation that funded “Safety-Net” payments. Josephine County has used those safety net payments to pay for vital county services, primarily our Criminal Justice System.
By failing to honor their long established obligations, the United States Congress has in effect cost-shifted federal expenses to local taxpayers.
I know it’s wrong. You know it’s wrong, but no one in Washington, D.C. is really listening to local voices anymore. To illustrate that point, recently I was speaking with the State of Oregon’s chief lobbyist in Washington, D.C. about the effort to reauthorize the Safety Net payments, and she summed up the situation quite clearly, “It no longer matters (in Washington) what we think or want in Oregon…”. That is the harsh reality we all face.
Unless Congress comes to its senses, and soon, the bitter, cold truth is that we are on our own. If we want to continue to have the criminal justice services those federal dollars used to pay for, the cost will have to come out of our pockets directly, like it or not. I can’t say it any more plainly than that.
Some local residents are saying this levy request is nothing more than a “scare tactic” by county government to convince you to pass a property tax levy on May 15th. But telling the truth, all though it might be very scary indeed, is not a scare tactic. It is just the truth. Those folks spreading this idea are simply misinformed.
Let’s be very clear about this levy request. It is for the replacement of those lost federal revenues, not a request for extra money. Some of those local folks who are opposed to this levy request are also telling their friends that the real reason for the levy is so the Board of Commissioners can fund other programs, like the library. As I said earlier, they are just misinformed.
If the levy passes, no money will be shifted to the library system because there is no money to shift. On the contrary, if the levy fails, what minimal property tax revenues the county receives today would need to be shifted from the Library, Public Health and other existing services, just to keep a skeleton criminal justice system in place.
In this levy failure scenario, in addition to the lost Library, Public Health, etc. services, the total available funds saved from all of those other county programs, even when added to current property tax revenues, would not be enough to provide the current levels of law enforcement and prosecution we have today. Should the levy fail, here are a few of the other things that will happen:
- The Juvenile Justice system will close;
- Only the most violent felonies would be prosecuted;
- There would only be 30 jail beds available;
- One Sheriffs patrol car would be on the road, for only 20 hours each day.
And that’s the best case projection for next year. Providing even that level of service would also require the County to spend the 5 million dollars in reserves we have worked so hard to save these past two years. The year after that, even these minimal service levels would be cut again, by more than half, because the reserves would be gone.
Those are the facts.
None of us want to pay higher property taxes. We are already over-taxed by anyone’s standards. Government today, in general, is too big and needs to be reduced. It is taxing the life blood out of us all.
But locally, reducing the size of government is exactly what your County Commissioners have already done!
To prepare for this massive revenue loss, Josephine County began preparing two years ago. The County has reorganized the workforce, reducing the number of public employees from nearly 700 two years ago, to just over 350 employees today. We have also significantly cut benefits to levels that are more in line with the private sector. These changes have saved nearly 5 million dollars in two short years.
The goal of those recent (and future) changes is to allow the other, non-criminal justice system services to continue to exist, at levels fundable from current property taxes and fees.
Let me repeat what I said earlier, “The criminal justice system has never been funded by property taxes.” It has always been funded with federal money, either timber receipts or safety-net revenues.
In fact, even if every other county service was closed down, there would not be enough current property tax revenue to even operate the jail at current levels.
Over the past six months, I have repeatedly been asked by citizens why the County didn’t start making these cuts six or even ten years ago. The County should have, but didn’t. This Commissioner has been in office for 27 months, and I have done everything I could to cut costs. Considering the scope of the problem I inherited, I think it is a near miracle we have accomplished what we have. But the greater problems we face cannot be solved at the local level. The real problems must be addressed both in Salem and in Washington, D.C. If there is no political will to solve them there, we can only react here.
The O&C lands are not held in Federal ownership with the same mandates as our national forest lands. Unlike National Forest lands, the O&C lands exist primarily to be used for resource production of timber. Congress must either relieve the O&C lands of the burden of judicial review that apply to National Forest land management and allow them to be managed for timber production first or they must act to permanently compensate the affected counties with an alternative revenue source.
Failing any Federal action to correct the problems they have caused, the Legislature and Governor of the State of Oregon will then need to step up to the plate and support the passage of new State legislation to correct the uneven funding playing field local counties governments have to contend with in Oregon. Otherwise, the financial situation will continue to deteriorate at a local level.
In closing, the issue facing all of us today is really quite simple. Will there be meaningful law enforcement and criminal prosecution in Josephine County or not?
If the levy passes, the current level of criminal justice services will continue. If voters turn down the levy, those services will not be there. The result will have definite impacts to local citizens for years to come, from quality of life issues to impacts on property values and it will affect the ability of our community to attract new and better jobs to the county.
The Board of Commissioners promise: If by some stroke of luck the Federal Government does come to it’s senses and restores the Safety Net funding, the Board of Commissioners has promised not to collect the tax money you approve under this levy, dollar for dollar, so you can keep that money in your pocket. Officials from other counties have actually chided us for making that promise, but not one of your current Commissioners would have voted to put the levy request on the ballot without making that promise to all of you. It was, and is, the right thing to do.
Finally, when I asked you for your vote during my campaign for this Office, I promised to tell you the truth, no matter what. I’ve just done that. This is not a “scare tactic”, it is not a “bluff,” it is simply the truth.
Regardless of the election outcome, we will budget the money you give us wisely, whether it includes this levy or not. We will provide the best level of services that we can.
If you vote yes on the levy, you vote to temporarily contain this massive financial problem and let your elected leaders continue to work on the long term solution.
If you vote no, well….we’ll do everything we can and not complain about it. But make no mistake about what it will mean. Things will change and I don’t think many of us will like those changes.
It’s your choice. Vote wisely. But make sure you vote.