The Bottom Line
Lane County can no longer rely on federal funds
BY FLO ALVERGUE, NANCIE FADELEY & KAPPY EATON
In the good old days, federal policy makers, recognizing that about 60 percent of our county's land is owned by the federal government (which does not pay property taxes), provided federal funds that covered a generous portion of the costs of Lane County government.
In the good old days, even though our property taxes were among the lowest in the state, Lane County budgets were adequate to provide needed public programs and services.
Federal funds that enabled us to be a low-property tax county terminated in 2006. Despite efforts of Oregon's congressional delegation, chances for renewed funding are dim.
Ballot measures 20-129 and 20-130 are designed to address the gap caused by loss of federal funds. 20-129 proposes a 1.1 percent income tax. 20-130 would cap Lane County income tax rates at 2 percent. The League of Women Voters of Lane County urges a yes vote for both measures.
Our research indicates that, without this tax, there will be substantial, devastating reductions in public safety and social service programs.
The League recognizes that some voters are asking questions:
Why aren't other Oregon counties also having budget crises? Counties that don't have large areas of federally owned land did not get federal funds to lighten their tax loads and have had higher property tax rates for years. Some counties including Coos, Douglas and Jackson that once enjoyed lower tax rates because they received federal funds are also facing budget crises.
Ballot measures 20-129 and 20-130 both require spending the income taxes on public safety. Some say that jailing is like locking the barn door after the horse is stolen. What's wrong with closing jail beds? Public safety programs are not limited to jail beds. Public safety is broadly defined in both measures. It includes programs such as youth and adult corrections, crime prevention, mental health services, alcohol and drug treatment, crime victim services, drug court, interagency narcotics enforcement, parole and investigations and supervision of misdemeanor domestic violence offenders.
According to Dr. Sarah Hendrickson, Lane County Public Health officer, "Public safety is a critical arm for intervention with families at risk for the ravages of uncontrolled drug dependence, domestic violence, and crime, all of which are closely related to the well-being of our children."
Much of our county's general fund is spent on public safety. Approval of an income tax for public safety would free up general fund monies that would otherwise go for public safety. Those dollars could then pay for veterans' services, animal control and abuse services, the Extension Service, county parks, WIC (Women, Infants and Children health and nutrition services) and elderly and disabled services.
Why can't money from other programs pay for these public safety and social service programs? Much of the county's money must go for mandated services or is dedicated for special purposes.
How do these measures differ from the income tax voters narrowly defeated last year? The present proposal would provide revenue to maintain existing programs. The 2006 proposal would have raised additional revenue for expanded programs. The 2006 proposal included property tax credits advantageous to large landholders. Those credits have been eliminated from this proposal.
Why does this proposal exempt retirement incomes? State law prohibits counties from taxing Social Security and PERS income. Federal case law prohibits Oregon counties from taxing government pensions.
Responding to public complaints that it was unfair to tax private pensions when government pensions were exempt, the commissioners decided to treat all pensions alike.
"Let's face it," Eugene Weekly editors wrote in a recent Slant column referring to Commissioner Bobby Green's support of a county income tax, "All the choices currently available to the county are bad ones."
This is a time of transition. Hopefully, more choices will become available.
Lane County residents need to be able to count on help from the sheriff's office when they call for help; victims of crime need support; adult addicts need the treatment that will give them the chance to straighten out their lives and provide models for their children; young offenders need life-changing programs that will give them a second chance by helping them make better choices; many families coping with mental health issues desperately need life-saving services; and babies threatened by acts of methamphetamine users need the services of our health department.
But inflation marches on, and the population of Lane County continues to grow.
The bottom line is that Lane County cannot count on funding like the $47 million that came from Washington, D.C., last year.
The League of Women Voters of Lane County believes that we cannot ignore the damage that loss could cause and urges approval of Ballot Measures 20-129 and 20-130.
Flo Alvergue and Nancie Fadeley are co-presidents of the League of Women Voters of Lane County. Kappy Eaton is the League's action chair. The LWV is a nonpartisan political organization that encourages informed and active participation in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy.