About To Go From Bad To Worse: Josephine County’s New Fiscal Year Starts Under a Cloud of Concern
As the Fourth of July rolled through with its fireworks and patriotic fanfare, it also marked the beginning to a new, troubling fiscal year for Josephine County. While belts have been tight over the past several years for county services like the sheriff’s department, the District Attorney and jails, the new budget shows a diagnosis where those services are about to be even more emaciated. And, worse yet, while the upcoming fiscal year is thin on spending and services, it will probably be the plumpest year for the foreseeable future as federal support for Josephine County continues to drain out of the region.
“In the absence of revenue replacement from the federal government or a local levy, we will not be able to sustain current levels of public safety services,” explained Josephine County Commissioners Simon Hare and Arthur O’Hare in a joint response to questions from the Messenger. “Neither option seems likely under current conditions,” they added. (For a complete transcript of the Messenger’s interview with Hare and co-commissioner O’Hare, please check out the full interview here).
That sentiment was echoed by the third County Commissioner, Cherryl Walker. “We had to cut public safety by 17 percent,” she explained matter-of-factly in a recent phone interview with the Messenger.
The past three years have been difficult for public safety in rural Josephine County, where the sheriff’s department has nearly halved its staff and hours, and correspondingly reported crimes has doubled, led by an eye-popping 2300 percent increase in the yearly cost of stolen or damaged property. In addition, there have been widely reported stories about women who have been assaulted with no sheriff patrols to respond, and 9-1-1 calls that have gone without anyone to respond in any sort of timely fashion. A recent feature story on National Public Radio featured Josephine County’s predicament with the summarily damning headline, “In the rural west, residents choose low taxes over law enforcement,” and included a description of a brutal double murder and carjacking by a felon which the sheriff lamented wouldn’t have happened with adequate funding in place.
“How long can you cry ‘wolf,’” asked Walker rhetorical in her interview with the Messenger. “And there isn’t any allocation on the horizon.”
To hold the line with minimal services—an adequately staffed sheriff’s department, a fully staffed District Attorney office and a jail that, at least, can hold felons instead of the current catch-and-release—would require an estimated $17 million a year. That budget, however, has tapered to $14 million for the upcoming fiscal year which began on July 1—and it is about to get worse, as even these current constricted services are about to seem like the gravy days. It is forecast that the public safety budget will drop below $10 million next year, and continue to dwindle in the upcoming years.
The general outlines for Josephine County’s predicament are well known: Over the past few decades, federal funds that supported schools and county services have faded fast. Dependent largely on timber sales, federal funding for rural counties in Oregon took a major hit 25 years ago when the timber industry was dramatically curtailed by environmental regulations and market changes. Although a quarter-century old, those wounds are still fresh and frustrating enough to earn mention in the recent budget, in which the county commissioners go out of their way to point their fingers at the Spotted Owl, explaining that protection of the endangered species “sharply decreas(ed) the ability to harvest timber from the National Forest, thereby decreasing the revenue counties were receiving.”
Stop-gap measures have held the line, but the last federal handout in 2015 was a two-year extension for $4.7 million/year; one-fifth what they were just 10 years ago.
Another primary source of federal support had been derived from a century-old agreement from the federal government to pay for millions of acres claimed for railroads, but those funds are also quickly vanishing—from $12 million 10 years ago, to under $5 million for each of the past five years. A number of rural counties, including Josephine, are suing the Bureau of Land Management to restore those funds.
The loss of federal funding has correspondingly increased the need for local funding, yet the majority of voters in Josephine County have stubbornly refused to chip in. The primary funder for public safety is property taxes—and the majority of property taxes in Josephine County are earmarked for public safety like paying sheriffs and keeping the jails open. Yet, Josephine County voters have routinely knocked down proposed property tax increases, and property taxes haven’t budged from 58 cents per $1000 assessed value in 22 years, the lowest amount in the entire state.
Four years ago, as the sheriff’s department explained they would cut back hours, essentially leaving the county (largely the territory outside of Grants Pass, which has its own police services) without fulltime coverage, voters seemed to take notice and a proposed tax levy in May 2013 nearly passed. That levy would have ratcheted property taxes to nearly $2 per $1000 assessed value—a dramatic three-fold increase, but still within the lowest third of county taxes in Oregon. The levy, however, was defeated 51-49.
Since then, it seems as if voters have settled into the new wild west reality—crime rates across the board have increased as the sheriff is unable to provide round-the-clock patrols and concealed weapon permits requests in the past year have nearly doubled (while the sheriff also has explained that his office doesn’t have the resources to provide state-mandated background checks).
In spite of this new, troubling scenario, subsequent property levy measures have failed, with a 53-47 defeat at the ballot box in 2014 and a widening margin, 54-46 defeat, last May. Even a ballot measure in May that specifically proposed a tax levy for $200,000 for the Three Rivers School District to contract for public safety officers at the school was soundly defeated nearly two to one vote.
Even so, Commissioner Walker is holding on to optimism. “A lot more people are becoming aware (of the problem),” she asserts. “It is unacceptable,” she added.
In late April, Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel presented a snapshot to the budget committee about just how much the lack of funds has reshaped the public safety landscape in Josephine County. By the numbers, patrol deputies are only on the roads 10 hours each day, with only two or three deputies per shift; which is about 40 percent coverage. Compared to five years ago, when the sheriff department had 100 full-time positions, that number has dwindled to half; the bulk of those employees work in the county jail. Moreover, the sheriff department has agreed to salary freezes, which affects any recruitment and retention for deputies.
Also, in the last fiscal year, there were 208 “forced releases” from the county jail, meaning that 208 inmates were let go because there were not enough resources to hold them any longer—and, with the budget shrinking even further, that number likely will correspondingly grow, while the number of public safety employees is likely to shrink.