Monday, December 09, 2013
Covering Dallas, Monmouth, Independence, Falls City and surrounding areas since 1868
October 23, 2013
POLK COUNTY -- After years of budget cuts and riding the political roller coaster that is federal timber payments, Polk County is asking for more funding.
That request comes in the form of Measure 27-109, a four-year, up to 60 cents per $1,000 of assessment value property tax levy for public safety. With Election Day approaching, it's now up to the voters of Polk County to decide if it is needed.
For county officials, that question is easy to answer.
"We don't have reserves, or adequate reserves, and we have cut other departments in the past," said Greg Hansen, Polk County administrator. "Every department is essentially operating at bare bones, at least in the general fund.
"We are hoping for the best but realizing increasing taxes is not easy," Hansen added. "Giving the public the opportunity to decide is what we did."
Polk County District Attorney Aaron Felton said his office will place priority on high-profile cases, but without more staff prosecution on lesser property crimes will change.
With four prosecutors available to take cases -- including himself -- Felton foresees other problems as well. He's concerned prosecutors won't always be available to help with investigations. Also, his office has a lengthening backlog of cases.
If public safety in Polk County is viewed as a system, the DA's office could potentially become a bottleneck as it struggles to complete cases brought by all police agencies in the county.
"The funnel is sort of blocked by us not being able to move those cases through quickly and well," Felton said.
Sheriff Bob Wolfe said further reductions are inevitable without more funding.
He estimates another two to three deputy positions would have to be cut. That puts at risk the county's interagency drug team and means he may have to decrease patrols to less than the current 20 hours.
In the jail, overtime would mount as there are not enough deputies to cover for illness, vacations, or other emergencies.
City departments and the local Oregon State Police Office are stretched thin, too, and may be incapable of picking up the slack, Wolfe said.
"It's only going to continue to get worse," he said. "That's not a threat. It's a fact. The money won't be there. If we are not there to do this, then who will be?"
If approved, levy funding would reverse the downward trend, replacing services lost since 2008.
Wolfe's office would add eight to 10 patrol deputies, four to six jail deputies, and add two or more detectives to the drug team. Courtroom security also would be enhanced.
Community Corrections is slated to add back its community service coordinator, while the Juvenile Department would receive more counselor support and detention space.
The DA's office would pick up to two more prosecutors and one support staff position.
Opponents of the measure have said the county needs to find ways to save more money and have even called the levy a "bail out."
Wolfe takes exception to that charge.
"I don't see this as a bail out because the county didn't mismanage its funds," he said. "We are just asking people what level of service they want."
Hansen added opponents saying the levy equals a 35 percent increase in county taxes -- from the permanent rate of $1.71 per $1,000 in assessed value to $2.31 -- has been misinterpreted by some voters to mean a 35 percent increase in their total taxes. That is not the case, he said.
Depending on where they live, county residents could pay city, school, fire, or other special district taxes, too. He said on average the 60 cents being asked for in the levy increases total taxes 3 to 7 percent.
While not specifically mentioned in the measure's ballot summary, county leaders -- including the Polk County Board of Commissioners who give final approval to the budget -- have vowed to levy less money if Polk County received additional timber funds.
Nonetheless, Felton said he understands voter concerns about tax increases.
"Whatever economic recovery is being talked about may not have arrived in Polk County," Felton said. "Asking people to pay more isn't easy, but to me it's a quality of life issue. We have been cut really to the point where we are fiscally unsustainable."