From time to time, I’ve used this space to describe the unique nature of the several counties of Southwest Oregon. Politically, socially, economically – they don’t resemble any other section of the state. Now, because of some of our “differences,” folks here are starting to feel a lot of hurt. In several ways, that hurt is – and will be – self-inflicted. It’s already begun.
First, some background. Geographically, we’re isolated. Only Interstate 5 and Highway 101 on the coast run north and south through several counties. Some communities have no direct east/west access. Several are large but most land is owned by one level of government or another. Most communities are small. Timber cutting/processing is big. But – because of limited access to those government trees and given today’s sluggish economy worldwide – unemployment is high and the standard of living for many is pretty low. The economic importance of commercial fishing is not near what it used to be and likely won’t ever be again.
Population in several counties is older than typical. Several regional Vet’s Administration hospitals account for a lot of that. Retirement, too. Not much here to keep lots of young folks. So, with many older people on fixed incomes – and without the usual liberalism balance of youth – politics hereabouts is very conservative. From right-of-center to edge-of-earth. Seceding from Oregon is not uncommon talk in our neighborhood,.
A lot or our county commissions, city councils, boards and the like often have people who’ve served 10-20-30 years or more. Because of that – and the fact our county-city populations are mostly small, the folks that serve and folks that elect often have close relationships. Which – in some ways – has added to our problems.
Example: a multi-county electric cooperative nearby had a member who had been on the board more than 40 years. The co-op board prided itself on almost never raising electric rates, regardless of increases in costs of power it bought. It just didn’t pay all the bills each month. The situation got so out-of-hand the federal agency that loaned the millions for all the system improvements over the years demanded a new repayment plan. Now! Or the Bonneville plug gets pulled! Rate increases – sizeable rate increases – hit the mailboxes and restructuring of the board of directors soon followed.
Another problem. Several counties have been receiving sizeable federal checks annually for years. The millions are supposed to support schools and other services because (a) the feds own so much land here and (b) the feds don’t pay taxes. So “in lieu” monies were paid under a special program – a program that’s now going away. Most everyone knew it would.
So – in the midst of our national economic troubles – these counties have been hit double. The hurting has begun. But only begun.
Our little burg is a one example of the problem, even though details here are better than most. Consider this: every dime of property tax raised here goes for county law enforcement. Every dime. All other county expenses come from various fees, the state and other sources. Like those federal timber payments. The ones ending. Our commissioners created a savings fund several years ago and it has helped. But when it’s gone soon – then what?
For the last few months, the sheriff and some leading Republicans in Josephine County have been pushing hard for a small tax increase dedicated entirely to law enforcement. No increase, the sheriff said, and he’d have to reduce the number of jail prisoners from 90 to 30 and fire 70 deputies and staff. He’d have three contract deputies to patrol an entire county. No court security – no detectives – fewer prosecutors. A few weeks ago, voters said “NO INCREASE” at the polls by a large margin. The pink slips have gone out. Property and other “minor” crime lawbreakers are getting tickets and a pass. Permit applications for concealed weapons permits are skyrocketing. What now, Josephine County?
Lane County is hurting. Jail and court operations curtailed. Dozens of prisoners turned loose. Lane D.A. Alex Gardner says “”It’ll really be the Wild West here” meaning more lawbreakers on the street. Lane, Jackson and Coos Counties are cutting in all areas.
Curry County planned to go to voters for a local sales tax in a few months and had already told the State of Oregon it would go broke without it. But remember that consumer-surprise delayed electric rate story? And the vote in Josephine County? Curry has no savings account. In a county with a population of about 25,000 or so, who’s gonna pay? And how much? And now this. NEWS FLASH: In the primary election a few weeks back, the two commissioners who proposed the local tax vote earlier this year – just proposed a vote – were defeated in their primaries this month. Defeated badly!
It is no overstatement to say the conservative nature of politics in SW Oregon, the isolation, the end of a long-standing federal support program and local dependence on what are now more limited natural resources have combined in something of a “perfect storm.” And all of that is playing out around a sizeable population of people who live here just for that isolation and who want to be “off the radar.” They are not highly sociable – not joiners – not part of the folks who do the volunteer and other tasks necessary to make a community close. And they hate taxes of any kind!
Though sprouts of green are showing up in the nation’s economy, we’re hurting here in SW Oregon. A unique set of circumstances – combined with an isolationist mind-set of far too many folks – is creating more problems than solutions. I don’t hear a lot of “let’s-get-our-shoulders-to-the wheel-and-get-back-on-the-road” talk. We’re seeing more folks at local food distribution centers even though things may be getting better in Seattle and Omaha and Cleveland. Too many people who should be in jail around here are not. And some of the laid-off people responsible for putting them there are leaving.
If none of this applies to conditions where you are, I’m happy for you. But these are the conditions in our neighborhood. And it’s gonna get worse.