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Josephine County sends seasonal sales tax proposal to voters

Josephine County Board of Commissioners Chairman Herman Baertschiger speaking at a wildfire town hall in Grants Pass in 2022.
Erik Neumann
Josephine County Board of Commissioners Chairman Herman Baertschiger speaking at a wildfire town hall in Grants Pass in 2022.

The Josephine County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to send an ordinance to voters for a seasonal sales tax to fund law enforcement services.

The 3% tax (called the Law Enforcement Retail Activities Tax, or LERAT) would focus on retail activities, with some exceptions, including groceries and prescription medications.

The Southern Oregon county has historically avoided tax increases, even to the detriment of some public services. Now officials are looking for a new way to fund its historically underfunded sheriff’s department.

Revenue from the tax would be used for the Sheriff's Office, Juvenile Department, District Attorney's Office, the City of Grants Pass Police Department and the City of Cave Junction for law enforcement purposes.

"The most important thing government does is protect its people. And here at the local level in Josephine County, that is at the sheriff’s office. I don’t like any of this. But I also don’t like what the consequences will be if we don’t fund our sheriff’s office," Josephine County Board of Commissioners Chairman Herman Baertschiger said at the meeting.

Estimates for how much money the tax would raise range from $10 to $18 million. Seven percent of the revenue would be deposited into a contingency fund in case revenue projections exceed the revenue that is received.

Seven people spoke during the public hearing on Wednesday, all of them against the tax.

The county's legal counsel will now write up the ballot language, which will be approved next Wednesday.

Josephine County residents will vote on the tax at the Nov. 8 election. The tax would be collected from April 15 — October 15.

In response to the proposed tax, the Grants Pass City Council voted on Monday to include language in the same ballot measure to reduce their current public safety levy, if the county tax is approved.

Grants Pass is expecting to receive $8 million in revenue from the proposed tax. But Josephine County Commissioner Dan DeYoung said at Wednesday’s meeting that the total revenue from the tax is uncertain.

"When we talk about how much money this is going to raise, we’re absolutely not sure either," DeYoung said.

The City of Grants Pass currently has a three-year public safety levy with a tax rate of $1.79 per $1,000. If the county tax is approved, that rate would be reduced by $1.

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.