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Making the tax appeal

Campaigning -- County brass hit the steets to ask voters for public safety levy
by: Chase Allgood, Sheriff Rob Gordon makes a pitch in Forest Grove.

They are pleading, in a dignified way.

At rotary meetings, neighborhood group meetings, chamber of commerce gatherings - any place they can find a public forum - the sheriff, the district attorney and the chairman of the board of county commissioners are all campaigning heavily for local Measure No. 34-127.

It's more commonly referred to as 'the public safety levy,' a local tax Washington County voters can choose to pay or not pay in the upcoming Nov. 7 general election.

The levy, a four-year renewal of a tax that county residents have paid for the last five years, accounts for about 17 percent of the funding for the county's justice system, including law enforcement, jail operations, courts and emergency services for victims of crimes.

It's money that fills in the financial gaps created by a property tax system that doesn't keep up with the county's population growth and demands for services, the elected officials say. It's money that makes the system work smoothly.

'Every (jail) bed is open, and we're running okay. That, for me, is the most critical piece of this levy,' said Washington County Sheriff Rob Gordon, who came to Forest Grove last week seeking the city council's official backing of the measure. (He got it.)

Bob Hermann, the county's district attorney, said money from the levy not only pays the salaries for nearly half of the county's prosecutors, allowing criminal cases to move more quickly through the justice system, but it also pays for specially trained criminal investigators, a boon for the prosecution of crimes.

'What we've done in this county is we have really improved the quality of investigation,' Hermann said.

All told, the officials say the levy would pay for 125 positions - a number that includes only four new positions: two deputies for the sheriff's investigations unit and two counselors for the juvenile department. The funding of all those positions also keeps 114 beds open at the county jail (14 percent of the jail's capacity), reducing the number of inmates that need to be released early for lack of space.

The levy also would retain about 50 percent of the income that the county's four emergency shelters - a public/private partnership - rely on to operate.

And it would expand the county's successful drug court program from 20 defendants a year to 76 a year - a point Tom Brian, chairman of the county's board of commissioners, emphasizes.

'The question is whether the agencies have enough money to invest in cost-effective alternatives to incarceration,' such as the drug court, he said.

Without the levy, they don't, Brian said. The county would need to spend its resources on maintaining the bare-bones system, instead of exploring more efficient and collaborative strategies valued by most, if not all, of the county's leaders.

Indeed, 'we think we have the most effective criminal justice system in Oregon,' Gordon said.

The county is also in the middle of updating its criminal justice system master plan - a process whereby consultants are looking for inefficiencies in the system. The review is expected to be completed in a year or two.

If voters renew the levy in November, county residents would pay 42 cents per $1,000 in assessed value of their property (1 cent per $1,000 cheaper than the previous levy). Owners of a home assessed at $192,000, for example, would pay an additional $81 in taxes in 2007.

'Washington County is a very safe community,' Gordon said. 'Look at what we've done, and allow us to continue doing it.'