Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Monday, May 13 @ 9:25 a.m.

Curry Commissioners Field Tax Levy Questions, Say They'll Need to Make Cuts If Measure Fails

To make a case for why voters should approve Curry County’s law enforcement levy, Brad Alcorn told them of a homeowner who called 911 when two drunken men created a disturbance on his driveway at about 3 a.m.

The homeowner had a gun, Alcorn said. Because no one was on duty, sheriff’s dispatch told him to stay inside and lock the doors. The altercation between the homeowner and the two drunken individuals took about 45 minutes, Alcorn said.

“Those guys are in a car, they’re drunk, there’s more of them than there are of him — it’s him and his wife — [so] he gets his gun,” Alcorn said. “Is he trained to make a good decision with that firearm? Is he proficient with it? Does he know how to articulate and explain to law enforcement the use of that firearm? I bet he doesn’t. And likely what’s going to end up happening is he’s the one who’s going to get in trouble. And he didn't do anything wrong.”

The incident happened last weekend, according to Alcorn.

Alcorn, chairman of the Curry County Board of Commissioners, and his colleague Jay Trost fielded questions from residents Wednesday skeptical at being asked to spend more in taxes. They were joined by District Attorney Joshua Spansail and Sheriff John Ward.

Appearing on Oregon’s May 21 primary ballot, the five-year tax levy would hire six new full-time sheriff’s deputies and an additional deputy district attorney. The county’s spending on the tax would be monitored by a seven-member citizens advisory board.

The subjects Alcorn described in his story eventually left, Ward said. The next day dispatch received a call that a car was wrecked with no one around it. Since the tags show the car was recently sold, there’s still an open investigation to find out who it belongs to, Ward said.

“There’s a criteria we have to meet to get somebody called out, and it’s usually for a person-to-person crime or a violent crime going on,” he said. “If a sergeant can’t get a hold of anybody he’s going to respond as well and then I don’t like sending one person out to something like that because it’s a volatile situation and you need backup. There’s no backup out there.”

Curry County needs $8 million for a 24-7 sheriff’s patrol, Alcorn said. The county only receives about $2.165 million in property taxes for its general fund, which pays for mandated services like law enforcement, he said.

Over the past few years, Curry County has dipped into its road reserve fund to keep the sheriff’s office afloat, Alcorn said. The county has also used one-time moneys like federal American Rescue Plan Act and Local and Tribal Consistency dollars to keep the sheriff’s office going, he said.

But the road reserve fund is shrinking, said Alcorn, who has been on the Curry County Budget Committee for about six years.

Describing it as a savings account, it currently sits at nearly $17.9 million. Curry County uses those dollars as matches for grants and to repair roads, Alcorn said.

ARPA and Local and Tribal Consistency dollars also helped Curry County recover from last year’s cyber attack, Alcorn said.

Commissioners decided to ask voters to approve a five-year property tax of $2.23 per $1,000 of assessed value after hiring a consultant to conduct a voter survey. They had also considered a sales tax measure or a gas tax measure to generate revenue for the sheriff’s office. Commissioners also kicked around the idea of a border toll, but “the state said no,” Alcorn said.

He said he was worried about a sales tax deterring visitors coming to Oregon from California to shop or visit restaurants. And there are only two gas stations in the unincorporated areas of the county, Alcorn said.

“I know in the City of Brookings, there’s a 4 cent gas tax and that’s Fred Meyer and Shell,” he said. “That generates about $350,000 per year. We’d need $8 million.”

If voters don’t approve the tax levy, the Curry County Budget Committee will have to decide what gets cut, Alcorn said. It’s already had several meetings to discuss how to respond if the levy fails, he said.

One decision the budget committee will need to grapple with is what happens to the road funds.

“Where is that line in the sand? It’s $17 million right now, do we take it down to $13, $12, $10, $9 [million]?” Alcorn said. “What do we do? Again, that money is used to leverage grants, it’s used to fix roads. It’s a restricted fund. We’re going to have some difficult decisions to make and those decisions will be made immediately because we’ll be in a position where there isn’t any money.”

If voters don’t approve the tax levy, Curry County will make more cuts than it already has, Trost said. About 88 percent of its budget is spent on personnel, he said, which means employees will be laid off.

Spansail said he would lose one deputy district attorney, his legal assistant and one of his office staff members. That’s a 31 percent cut to his department.

“When you look at similar size counties in Oregon, I’m already incredibly understaffed,” Spansail said. “I’m going to use Jefferson and Crook County, which are in Central Oregon. They each have I think approximately 1,500 or 2,000 more people than Curry County does. But Jefferson County has four deputy DAs and 10 office staff. Crook County five deputy DAs and 10 office staff. You compare that to me with two deputy DAs and two office staff.”

Ward, who is facing re-election, said he needs six more deputies to safely run his department 24-7 . He only has seven deputies currently two of whom have just graduated from the academy. They must complete a 12-week field training program before they’re able to go out on their own, Ward said.

Ward said he also works with 50 Search & Rescue volunteers, at least three or four of whom would be great as a patrol deputy. But there’s no job security for them.

“We have open positions posted on different websites, and I even send information to other counties to say, ‘Hey, if you have anybody looking to transfer, we have an opening,” he said. “This budget cycle we’re in right now is over in a month and a half, so I can’t hire anybody if I can’t promise them a job [after] a month and a half.”

Commissioners spent about two hours fielding questions from residents, some who were skeptical

One woman, who said she’s been vocal against the proposed tax, asked what would happen with the moneys that are distributed but not spent. She also said that public safety is a broad term.

“I just can’t get behind it. I could have gotten behind anything short of a dollar,” she said. “That would have helped the stop gap, some of it. You ask for too much.”

Another resident said he was concerned about transparency since the Board of Commissioners would be tasked with appointing members to the oversight committee.

Alcorn assured him that all of the commissioners’ meetings are public.

“That seven-member group, those will be public meetings, those will be recorded meetings just like all of our meetings,” Alcorn said.

Another resident, Walt Keys, of Brookings, said he has about 38 years experience in the federal government and asked if there were procedures in place to ensure that new programs don’t emerge in the sheriff’s department that result in a need to increase the $8 million it currently needs.

“What I’ve found in my experience with government organizations is once you get a certain amount of funding you get comfortable,” he said. “Once you get a breather and you say, ‘Alright, this levy passed, we’ve got this for five years,’ are there stop gap measures so new programs don’t emerge within law enforcement?”

Ward answered Keys’ question by bringing up the South Coast Interagency Narcotics Teams, which was operated out of Coos County and included the Curry County and Gold Beach and Brookings Police Department.

Curry County helped fund it, Ward said. It also operated in Western Douglas County, according to the SCINT website, which appears have been last updated in December 2019.

However, Coos County cut that team down to one person “so they don’t really help us at all,” Ward said.

“What I want to do is I want to establish a narcotics task force within our own county with other agencies, detectives or their sergeants or whatever and have a small task force and maybe even call out from other counties that has a task force to help us out,” he said. “But that all costs money.”

Gold Beach City Councilor Phoebe Skinner, who is also a teacher, reminded people that law enforcement responds to domestic violence calls. She urged voters to think about the impact not having adequate public safety could have on their children.

“When they know they’re safe, when they know they have people they can trust, that builds so much in their current self and prevents so much trauma in their grown selves,” she said. “That’s something to think about when balancing the pros and cons.”

Residents can call (541)247-3248 to get their questions about the tax levy answered. They can also find out what their assessed property value is by clicking here.


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