The future of Curry County and its current financial crisis weighed heavy on the minds of residents attending Town Hall meetings hosted Thursday by State Rep. Wayne Krieger and Sen. Jeff Kruse in Brookings and Gold Beach.
“What do you think about the proposed sales tax for Curry County?” asked one of 25 people at the Brookings meeting.
The Curry County Commissioners are considering putting a sales tax or property tax on the ballot later this year in an effort to raise enough money to keep the county solvent and services intact.
Krieger was first to field the question, saying he preferred a 1 percent sales tax on most items.
“Curry County doesn’t have many options, but if you go with a sales tax, and it excludes too many items, it won’t pass,” he said. “If they stay with 1 percent on most items, then I will support it.”
He also said a sunset clause, which would place a limit on how long the sales tax is in effect, should be included to increase its chances of getting voter approval.
Kruse, along with Krieger, has been campaigning at the federal level to get an extention of federal timber payments for rural counties.
“That bill, which some call the ‘federal bailout,’ is in serious doubt right now,” Kruse said. “Even if it passes, it’s a short-term solution. And, in a best-case scenario, it’s two years off. How does Curry County survive in the meantime?”
He asked the audience: “Do you want public health, the county clerk’s office managed by the state?”
Kruse said “Curry County is the poster child. No doubt about it.”
He believed that, with a sales tax, tourists would be paying most of it, and that may impact local businesses.
“It may be the best option out there but I haven’t come down to a decision on this yet.”
Another audience member suggested that
employee benefits through PERS be cut.
Kruse said PERS is a very complicated system of compensating state employees for health and
retirement benefits and is its based on contracts.
“There’s not much we can do about it,” he said. “Also, we can’t make any changes to the people who currently received PERS, just future employees.”
Another resident wanted to know if the county could file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy.
But Krieger explained that Oregon, unlike some states, such as California, does not allow cities and counties to
file for bankruptcy.
When asked if he would pursue possible legislation to remedy that, Krieger said he’d have to research it more.
“In Oregon there are many shared services between the state and municipalities, and I’d have to look into how those services would be impacted if a county was to file for bankruptcy,” he said.
Kruse said if Curry County ceased to exist, the state would have two options:
•Have surrounding counties absorb Curry County services and its debt;
•Redraw the county lines and distribute the debt among counties.
“It’s going to cost the state more money to run county services from a distance; it would have to hire more people. Restructuring is a better way to go and I’m willing to look at that,” Kruse said.
“There is no easy solution,” he said, then added, “The easiest solution is to cut trees.”
Krieger and Kruse left Brookings for a Town Hall meeting at Gold Beach City Hall.
One member of the audience said that all levels of government are broken and asked what could be done.
Krieger said the Legislature has had three different task forces in the last year.
“The question is, what happens when the money goes away. We still don’t have a clear picture what will happen,” he said. “When all is said and down, what do we have?”
Krieger said Oregon’s resources are natural resources, which are not available.
“That’s why we can’t fund veterans, K-12 schools, senior citizens,” he said.
“The land use system is broken,” Krieger said.
Kruse said that Congress is working to set up an O&C Trust that would provide conservation and jobs.
“In the House, they tried to roll it into a more comprehensive piece of legislation. The chair, Doc Hastings of Washington, was not cooperative,” he said.
“Now the O&C lands are the same as the Forest Service. If you have a timber sale, anybody for any reason can sue and stop it. If we can get the trust created, if you file a suit to stop it, you would have to have a real reason to stop it. You have to have standing,” Kruse said.
“That would increase income $135 million a year, which would make everyone whole again,” he said.
But he said if that legislation got out of the House this year, it would be 2013 before the Senate would act.
“There’s a whole lot of protection there for the environment,” Krieger said.
Gold Beach resident Bill Douglas had several statements for the two.
He complained of being unable to purchase gasoline without ethanol.
“I’ve had to replace all the carburetors on small motors,” he said. He said the ethanol leaves a residue which breaks down the small motors.
He said another concern is recreational gold prospecting.
Douglas said the state, BLM and the Forest Service keep the recreational prospector from operating.
“I would hope the Legislature could help us with these issues. We’re not discharging anything in the river that isn’t already there,” he said. “Now the Forest Service says no mineral recovery from Lobster Creek up.”
Krieger said the problem is “uninformed public employees in the Federal Government. Nothing gets done that doesn’t turn into a quagmire.”