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Oregon's Cash-Strapped Counties Reject Public Safety Levies

A yard sign opposes a local tax increase to fund public safety in Josephine County, Oregon. The ballot measure reportedly failed by a thin margin.
Amelia Templeton
A yard sign opposes a local tax increase to fund public safety in Josephine County, Oregon. The ballot measure reportedly failed by a thin margin.

Two Oregon counties have reportedly rejected property tax increases that would have funded law enforcement and public safety services. The counties once received federal timber subsidies, but those days are over — and now they're scrambling to pay for essential services.

In Josephine County, where nearly 70 percent of the land belongs to the U.S. government, Tuesday's vote that was too close to call last night. But The Daily Courier in Grants Pass, Ore., reported Wednesday that voters rejected the new levy.

The impact of the loss of federal funds in the county — and the reported 80 percent layoffs in the local police force that it forced — was illustrated in harrowing fashion by Amelia Templeton's report for All Things Considered Tuesday, as she played a recording of a woman's desperate 911 call from August 2012, when the caller was told that there were no officers who could help.

The problem was that the county's police were only on duty during daytime hours, from Monday to Friday.

"My ex-boyfriend is trying to break into my house. I'm not letting him in, but he's, like, tried to break down the door, and he's trying to break into one of the windows," the unidentified woman told the 911 dispatcher. She added that the man had injured her before, putting her in the hospital.

"The call came in on a Saturday at 4:58 in the morning. None of the sheriff's deputies in Josephine County were on duty," Templeton reports. "So dispatch transferred the call to the Oregon State Police, but they also didn't have anyone available."

The call lasts more than 10 minutes; in it, the woman repeatedly asks for help. At one point, the dispatcher suggests she find somewhere to hide.

"Once again, it's unfortunate you guys don't have any law enforcement up there," the dispatcher says.

On Tuesday's ballot, the county's residents were asked to decide, "Shall Josephine County impose $1.48 per $1,000 assessed value for criminal justice and public safety for three years beginning 2013?"

The measure listed several potential uses, such as adding capacity to the county's jail, providing a school security program, and increasing "Sheriff's deputies' response and patrol."

"The approximate tax increase for a home with an assessed value of $150,000 would be $222.00 per year, or approximately $18.50 per month," according to the ballot document.

In two other counties in similar situations — Lane and Curry Counties — voters took up their own public safety levies Tuesday. Curry County voters rejected their measure, according to The Curry Coastal Pilot, while voters in Lane County were projected to approve their levy.

"Keep in mind, it's been almost a quarter of a century since Lane County passed a public safety levy," April Baer of Oregon Public Broadcasting said this morning.

Baer was then asked what might happen next in places like Josephine County.

"The Oregon Senate Rules Committee has been considering a bill that would give the state certain powers," she says. "The governor was involved drafting it. Under its terms, the state could declare a public safety emergency, and impose a temporary tax to shore up the jail and other safety services for up to 18 months."

This week, the Oregon District Attorneys Association called for the state to lower penalties and allow discretionary sentencing for crimes involving drugs and driving offenses, saying the money required to jail people for such crimes cuts into what can be spent to keep violent offenders in custody.

The prosecutors' suggestions come after Oregon's public safety commission suggested removing mandatory sentences, "for such crimes as first-degree sex abuse, second-degree assault and second-degree robbery," The Oregonianreports.

In Amelia Templeton's report yesterday, she noted that Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson issued a press release after the budget cuts first took effect.

"In it, he warned victims of domestic violence to 'consider relocating to an area with adequate law enforcement services,'" Templeton reported.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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