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Pot tax, sheriff's levy are on Clackamas County ballots

Clackamas County voters, in addition to a fuel tax, will decide Nov. 8 whether to renew a property tax for sheriff’s operations and whether to charge a new tax on retail sales of marijuana.

Measure 3-502 proposes to extend for five years, starting in mid-2017, a tax rate of 24.8 cents per $1,000 of taxable property value. Voters approved the original tax in 2006 and renewed it in 2011.

The current tax generates about $10.7 million that pays for 31 deputies at the jail in Oregon City, plus 18 patrol deputies and nine detectives.

This tax is countywide. A separate tax, which is not up for election on this ballot, is paid by property owners within a special district for sheriff’s patrols outside cities.

Although there is no organized opposition — and no opposing arguments were filed in the county voters pamphlet — Board Chairman John Ludlow is concerned that voters may overlook the consequences should they reject the measure.

Ludlow, who paid for a supporting argument in the voters pamphlet, said the tax has to go to voters every five years.

“Our responsibility is to keep those jail beds open and those patrol officers out there. If this fails, I promise you we will put this out again in the spring. We have no choice,” he said at a meeting with Pamplin Media Group editors.

“There are a lot of people who think things will go on, but this is a recurring levy.”

In addition to the sheriff’s positions supported by the levy, Ludlow said failure of the levy could lead to closure of as many as 86 of the 465 beds currently open at the jail.

In addition to Ludlow’s own statement, supporting arguments were filed by Sheriff Craig Roberts, retired Oregon State Police Superintendent Richard Evans, several groups of mayors, police chiefs and business leaders, and a citizens advisory panel.

County commissioners could submit another proposal in the May 16 election, 45 days before the current tax ends. But that late date would create uncertainty in preparing the sheriff’s budget for the next year, which starts July 1.

Some members of the county budget committee, including commissioners, discussed the possibility of a higher request to fund the opening of 26 more beds at the jail. Of the total of new beds, 14 would be for female inmates and 12 for inmates with severe mental health problems.

But Ludlow said the commissioners went along with Roberts’ recommendation to hold the line on the levy rate.

Law enforcement would be one of the three main beneficiaries of proceeds from Measure 3-510, which would impose a 3 percent county tax on retail sales of marijuana for recreational use.

The tax would start in March. It does not apply to medical marijuana. Proceeds are estimated at $180,000 annually.

The county tax would apply only to sales in unincorporated areas even though all voters countywide will decide it. Seven cities within the county have similar measures on the ballot. Under state law, voters must authorize the local tax.

No arguments were filed for or against this measure in the county voters pamphlet.

Other county beneficiaries are zoning enforcement – the county approved an extensive ordinance regulating commercial marijuana last year – and public health.

Oregon’s legalization measure that voters approved in 2014 limits access to marijuana to adults 21 and older.

“But we know teenagers now have more access to marijuana,” Ludlow said. “We need to be proactive about it entering into their lives and try to get them to wait.”

The county tax would be in addition to the state tax, which will drop from 25 percent to 17 percent. Cities and counties also share in state tax collections, unless they bar retail sales.

Ludlow said the county, along with the Association of Oregon Counties, will press their case in the next legislative session for a greater share of state proceeds. Under the current formula, counties get 10 percent, and more from specific grants to prevention and treatment programs.

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