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A sales tax to fund law enforcement? Josephine County proposal has uncertain future

Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel says his department faces a $2.5 million shortfall next year.
Erik Neumann
JPR News
Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel says his department faces a $2.5 million shortfall next year.

County residents will decide whether to support a 3% seasonal sales tax this November. If approved, it would go to the county’s underfunded sheriff’s department and other public safety offices.

If the new tax, called the Law Enforcement Retail Activities Tax (LERAT) doesn’t pass, nearly all 18 sheriff’s office deputies will receive pink slips next year, according to Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel.

"That leaves us with, next year it’ll be a $2.5 million shortfall. And that equates to basically almost my entire patrol division. Basically leaves me with possibly one deputy for the entire county and then five contract deputies," he said.

The department is suffering from a staffing crisis, the result of decreased funding from federal timber payments and low property taxes.

To address this problem, residents will vote on a sales tax, which would apply to most retail activities, with some exceptions, like prescriptions and groceries. Revenue would be divided among the sheriff's office and other law enforcement departments in the county based on local towns' populations, including the Juvenile Department, District Attorney's Office, the City of Grants Pass Police Department, and the City of Cave Junction.

Josephine County has historically avoided tax increases, even to the detriment of some public services. In 2012, residents did not approve a $12 million levy, leading to deputies being laid off and jail inmates being released because of reduced jail bed capacity. The county’s property tax rate is only 58 cents per $1,000, one of the lowest in the state. Oregon residents also do not pay sales tax.

"Nobody likes a tax, I don’t like a tax. But I like law enforcement," Daniel said.

If the tax passes, which Daniel estimates would raise about $18 million, he will be able to fund 41 deputy positions. Seven percent would be deposited into a contingency fund to pay for law enforcement expenses, and the tax could not be raised without a vote of the people. It would only apply to the first $2,000 of a purchase, and funds would be subject to an annual audit to ensure compliance.

The tax proposal has received pushback. At a Board of Commissioners meeting in August, most residents who spoke during the public comment period were against it.

"My understanding of this motion is more or less to pass the buck from homeowners to consumers to be able to support law enforcement, and I don’t agree with that concept. And I don’t think that retail sales tax is the solution to provide services for our community," said resident Jenna Recognizer.

The Grants Pass and Josephine County Chamber of Commerce also opposes the tax. President and CEO Josie Molloy said it would create a competitive disadvantage for small businesses.

"Our businesses are just recovering from COVID, and now they’re dealing with inflation. And another tax just makes it very difficult," she said.

She said an August survey of chamber membership showed that 87% of respondents oppose the tax.

It would be collected from April 15 through October 15. Josephine County Commissioner Dan DeYoung said at a press conference recently that this seasonal structure would allow tourists to shoulder some of the burden.

Josephine County Commissioner Dan DeYoung outside the county courthouse Feb. 29, 2020, in Grants Pass, Ore. DeYoung said the anti-tax attitude is tied to poor financial planning in Josephine County in the past.
Bradley W. Parks
Josephine County Commissioner Dan DeYoung outside the county courthouse Feb. 29, 2020, in Grants Pass, Ore.

"We have a huge amount of tourist traffic during that time, and in the past tourist traffic has not paid for anything, as sales tax does everywhere else. And so it will now help pay for law enforcement," he said.

But Molloy said this structure means creating an accounting system that would be complicated for small businesses to manage.

"We’re mostly worried about the time and effort the businesses are going to have to put into the accounting side," she said.

However, Daniel pointed out, businesses would get compensated through the tax for their extra accounting, earning 5% of whatever they collect from the 3% sales tax.

A 2019 report about law enforcement in the county showed that within a year after the 2012 law enforcement levy vote failed, the number of concealed carry permits in the county doubled as residents sought ways to protect themselves, and the drug crime rate increased to roughly three times the state’s rate.

Daniel said this tax would provide a permanent solution to longstanding funding problems, allowing him to provide 24/7 patrols in the county.

Molloy said the Chamber would rather see a different solution, like a taxing district or levy.

"The Chamber of Commerce definitely wants to be part of the solution. We know that funding our sheriff’s department is crucial, and we want to have them at full capacity. It’s just we cannot get behind this sales tax," she said.

Daniel claims the department has explored many funding ideas, and this was the best option. The Board of Commissioners hosted three forums in July to discuss ways to prevent major cuts to law enforcement patrols.

If the tax is not approved, Daniel said the department would have to triage emergency calls and only respond to the most severe needs. The department may be able to get help from state police or federal funding, but that’s not certain.

"We’re trying to create a stable foundation for the sheriff’s office at a time when we absolutely desperately need it," he said.

If the county tax is approved, Grants Pass will reduce the tax rate on its public safety levy by $1 per $1,000.

Residents of Josephine County will vote on the tax on November 8. If it’s approved, it will go into effect on March 15.

Jane Vaughan began her journalism career as a reporter for a community newspaper in Portland, Maine. She's been a producer at New Hampshire Public Radio and worked on WNYC's On The Media. Jane earned her Master's in Journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.