Law allows income surtax in counties with public safety fiscal emergency

HydeLast year, the Oregon Legislative Assembly approved a law allowing the governor to declare a “public safety fiscal emergency” in conjunction with counties where not enough money is available for what are deemed to be essential public safety services.

With Columbia County facing the potential closure of its jail this summer, the new law provides a potential vehicle for the county to head off what some officials have characterized as a disaster in waiting — but Tony Hyde, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, said Wednesday, March 26, that it is not an option the county will consider.

The law, passed last year as House Bill 3453B and signed into law by Gov. John Kitzhaber, gives a county where the governor has declared a public safety emergency the option of asking the state to work out an intergovernmental agreement under which Oregon will shoulder half of local public safety service costs. To help pay for the other half of those costs, the county would have the option of levying an income tax, a telecommunications tax or both.

A $7.07 million property tax levy option is on the ballot this May in Columbia County to pay for jail operations over the next three years. Unlike that levy, which must be approved by voters, taxes under the banner of a state-declared public safety emergency could be levied by ordinance.

A KOIN 6 News report filed Thursday, March 20, cited an anonymous “county leader” as suggesting Columbia County could seek a declaration of a public safety emergency from Kitzhaber as a “last-resort option.”

Sheriff Jeff Dickerson said he mentioned that option while speaking with KOIN for the report, but he made it clear Monday in an interview with the Spotlight that he does not believe Columbia County is likely to make use of it.

“It ain’t gonna happen,” Dickerson predicted. “It’s not gonna happen because the commissioners would basically have to go to the governor and say, ‘Please consider that we’re in a state of fiscal distress.’”Kitzhaber

Dickerson added, “I don’t see it as a viable option because the political ramifications are too great. ... Maybe it’s designed for commissioners who don’t have much to lose. I don’t know. But I don’t think it’s going to find any commissioners here that are willing to go that route.”

Hyde made it clear that he is not.

“We call that the nuclear option, and we’re not going there,” Hyde said. “I don’t believe in taxation without representation.”

Hyde added, “It’s not on the table at all.”

The three members of the Board of County Commissioners have not discussed the possibility of asking Kitzhaber to declare a public safety emergency, Commissioner Henry Heimuller said Monday. But he stopped short of slamming the door shut on it.

“If, you could say, it was the last-ditch effort, the last tool in the toolbox, we would have to have that discussion,” said Heimuller.

While Heimuller described the emergency declaration as “something we would hope that we wouldn’t have to do,” he noted that Curry County, in southern Oregon, is considering the option as a way to dig itself out of its own financial troubles. Voters in Curry County, as in Columbia County, have repeatedly refused to support ballot measures to increase funding for their Sheriff’s Office.

“There are counties that are considering it,” Hyde acknowledged Wednesday. “But we have not and will not be considering that, period.”

A spokeswoman for Kitzhaber, Rachel Wray, said the governor “would carefully consider any county’s request to declare a public safety emergency.”

Wray added, “The law establishes the process for that consideration, and the first thing that must happen is the county’s request.”

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