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Amid budget shortfalls, Southern Oregon voters will decide on new funding for law enforcement

Curry County Sheriff John Ward is supporting a property levy to fund more patrols in his region.
Justin Higginbottom
Curry County Sheriff John Ward is supporting a property levy to fund more patrols in his region.

County officials across Southern Oregon say they’re desperate to fund law enforcement. But measures on the ballot this month to raise taxes are a hard sell in a region once reliant on timber revenue.

Curry County Sheriff John Ward says he spends a lot of time out of the office.

“I'm more of a working sheriff than politician because I go out on a lot of calls, when there's nobody else available,” says Ward while driving his patrol car along a coastal highway in the Southern Oregon city of Gold Beach.

Ward says he likes responding to calls. But he also finds himself on the road because his department is short-staffed. His office doesn’t have enough deputies to patrol from 2 a.m. to 7 a.m.

A five-year property tax, charging $2.23 per $1,000 of assessed value, is on the ballot this month to fund more deputies and patrols as well as jail services like electronic monitoring. According to the county, it will cost the average taxpayer just over $30 per month.

Ward passes a former timber mill — now an RV park — which brings backs memories of a time when Curry County could afford 24-hour patrols.

“This used to be an old mill site.… When the logging basically got shut down and we're [no longer] managing our own timber, they tore everything down. I used to work out here when I was maybe late teens,” says Ward.

Curry County used to rely on a steady stream of revenue from logging on federal land. It’s one of 18 counties in the state that receive subsidies from timber harvested on Oregon & California Railroad land. That allowed the county to keep taxes low. Curry has the second-lowest property taxes in the state.

But forests open to logging were reduced in the 90s to protect the environment and endangered species like the spotted owl. (An investigation by ProPublica, The Oregonian/OregonLive and Oregon Public Broadcasting also shows many O&C counties lost money from tax cuts on private forests.)

Curry County Ccommissioner Jay Trost says the resulting drop in timber revenue over the decades has contributed to their budget woes.

“It's why we're having the conversation today. Certainly,” says Trost.

He says the county is only staying afloat now due to a federal American Rescue Plan grant, which expires at the end of June.

Now it’s his job to sell the idea of a new tax in a historically tax-adverse region.

“The reality is a levy has been often tried in Curry County and has never been successful. It's a mountain that has not been summited,” he says.

It’s not just Curry County’s law enforcement looking for more funding this year. Neighboring Josephine County, which also historically relied on timber revenue, renewed a levy to fund their sheriff’s office last year. But from 2012 to 2016 voters decided against new law enforcement property taxes five times. During that time the sheriff’s office cut two-thirds of its staff.

Trost says that by the time a levy passed in Josephine, a lot of damage was already done. He points to Cave Junction, a town where authorities currently struggle against illegal marijuana operations, as a cautionary tale.

“You would just need to look at what happened in Cave Junction when the levy didn't pass for Josephine County and what happened to that community when they had no more sheriff patrol. Essentially, that's what we would be somewhat facing in our unincorporated spaces,” says Trost.

Coos County, just up the coast from Curry County, also has a measure on this month’s ballot to support law enforcement. That five-year property levy would add a tax of $.98 per $1,000 of assessed value. The money will go to fund more deputy district attorneys to tackle a backlog in cases and add beds to the county’s overcrowded jail.

Coos County Sheriff Gabe Fabrizio says that they’re in the same position, financially, as their neighbors

“Like so many places we're facing this massive financial cliff,” says Fabrizio.

He says the county jail is often at capacity.

“Unfortunately, we find ourselves in a situation where we have forced releases. People come in and in order to hold them we have to release somebody else,” says Fabrizio.

His department’s budget trouble isn’t only about disappearing timber revenue. He says prices have also increased from personnel to materials and vehicles.

A law enforcement levy in Coos County failed in 2008 and 2022. This time around, Fabrizio says he’s trying to not be negative when explaining to voters the need for a new tax. But he’s also clear that there will be consequences if this levy doesn’t pass — starting with the jail.

“So even though we just [expanded] to 98 beds, we'll probably have to go back down to 49. [We’ll] probably lose a whole patrol shift… and one of our detectives. It's going to be pretty widespread across the office,” says Fabrizio.

Chris Castleman, who’s running for commissioner in Coos County, says most residents agree that crime is a problem.

“Residents at this point feel completely hopeless. I mean, it's almost a state of lawlessness,” says Castleman.

But he’s against the levy and thinks it will be hard sell for voters. His preference is to fund law enforcement fully and then cut from the budgets of other departments if necessary.

“I go door-to-door, business-to-business and everyone supports law enforcement. But it seems like the majority doesn't want a tax increase. We got to come up with a better plan. And I haven't seen it out there yet,” says Castleman.

Back in Curry County, Sheriff Ward says that criminals have caught on to the times his officers can’t patrol.

“When you have a set schedule, people get used to that and especially the criminals out there know when we're on, when we're not on,” says Ward.

Most residents here would agree that’s not an ideal situation. Settling on a solution is more difficult.

Justin Higginbottom is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. He's worked in print and radio journalism in Utah as well as abroad with stints in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. He spent a year reporting on the Myanmar civil war and has contributed to NPR, CNBC and Deutsche Welle (Germany’s public media organization).