Saturday, May 25, 2013
Covering Dallas, Monmouth, Independence, Falls City and surrounding areas since 1868
January 15, 2013
POLK COUNTY -- Yet another local government agency is mulling placing an operating levy before voters in 2013.
This time it's Polk County considering a 3- to 5-year levy to support law enforcement services -- namely the Polk County Sheriff's Office, District Attorney's Office, Community Corrections and Juvenile Services.
County Administrator Greg Hansen said the county's 2013-14 budget will be short at least $500,000 with a worst-case scenario of losses in the $1 million range. And that is on top of multiple years of reductions, forcing the county to consider cuts "which will be very difficult to recover from."
The shortfall is due to a $400,000 increase in PERS costs, an anticipated 8- to 10-percent increase in insurance costs, the expected loss of federal timber payments, reduction in state funding and dwindling reserves. Meanwhile, property tax revenue will increase only about 2 percent.
Hansen said the county has avoided asking for a levyby using reserves and through temporary extensions of timber payments.
"We've dodged a lot of bullets and pulled rabbits out of hats," Hansen said. "I don't see any of that in the future."
Hansen has recommended a 3- to 4-year levy that would provide $2.4 million per year at 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed value on properties or $2.9 million at a cost of 60 cents per $1,000.
That amount of money would equal timber revenue before the payments were reduced -- but it is just a starting point. A citizens advisory committee will begin meeting as soon as next week to examine the issue.
If the committee agrees the county should seek a levy, it will provide a recommendation to the Board of Commissioners on its duration, amount and when it should appear on the ballot, either in May's primary or November's general election.
Choosing between the May and November ballot will be a critical issue for the committee. Having the measure on the May ballot would mean -- if it passes -- the county could levy additional taxes in November and be saved from another year of cuts.
However, May's primary election ballot potentially could have three bonds or levies in the Monmouth-Independence area already: one seeking funding for a new police station in Monmouth, and operating levies for the city of Independence and Polk County Fire District No. 1. The fear is too many funding requests at once would push voters to reject them all, Hansen said.
Timing remains an issue, but Hansen believes there is a clear need for a levy.
He said non-law enforcement general fund departments are running on minimal staffing and workers remaining are facing ever-increasing workloads. Polk County Jail staff is at a minimum, too, so most cuts would have to come from the Sheriff's patrol division and the DA's office.
For the Sheriff's Office, that would mean losing 24-hour patrols and put the Polk County Interagency Narcotics Team (POINT) and the detective division in danger of elimination. Sheriff Bob Wolfe said current staffing levels barely cover 24-hour patrols with a minimum of two deputies on a shift.
"For safety reasons, I can't justify having a shift with fewer than two deputies," he said.
The other cost-saving options aren't any better.
"I need to have detectives and the POINT team is significant to the safety of the county and the war on drugs," he said.
District Attorney Aaron Felton said any further reductions may force his office to make tough decisions on which cases will go to trial and which will be settled.
"I don't like that conversation one darn bit," Felton said.
He also noted that a staff reduction would curtail the office's participation in specialized investigations, such as the seven-month investigation POINT completed last week. The DA's office was able to dedicate a prosecutor to that case.
"We will still complete our mission, but our ability to be part of a comprehensive and tailored investigation will change," he said. "That is just the reality of it."
Felton doesn't like the idea of raising taxes, so he is glad a citizens committee is being formed. He will participate in meetings.
Depending on the level of funding, the levy would pay for: more patrol and jail deputies, deputy DAs, a Community Corrections crew leader and juvenile detention beds.
Additionally, the levy includes funding for Dallas, Monmouth, Independence in exchange for placing an officer on POINT. Funding would also be offered to the city of Salem, most likely for patrols in the rural West Salem area, but details still need to be worked out.
"I think it's important to let the voters decide what level of service they want," Hansen said, adding he brought the issue to the BOC and budget committee in December. "They all concurred it's time to ask what they are willing to support."