SALEM, Ore. — Unprecedented action is needed to tackle unprecedented circumstances facing the state's timber counties that are on the brink of insolvency, Gov. John Kitzhaber told a legislative committee Monday.
Kitzhaber urged members of the House Rules Committee to support a plan that would allow him to take emergency actions in Oregon counties that have been devastated by the loss of federal timber subsidies.
"This is certainly not my first choice, and nothing that I am looking forward to having to do," Kitzhaber told the committee. "On the other hand, if these counties reach the point where life and property are truly in danger, the only tools that I have available now are pretty much mobilizing the National Guard, which is an equally unpalatable option. This at least allows us to have a conversation."
The situation became more pressing after Curry and Josephine counties rejected property tax levies that would have funded local law enforcement. A jail levy, however, passed in Lane County.
The measure would authorize the governor to declare a public safety emergency for up to 18 months, with the unanimous agreement of legislative leaders from both parties. The declaration could trigger a merger of local governments. With agreement from a majority of local county commissioners, the governor would also be able to levy a temporary income tax on county residents to fund public safety. The money would be matched by state funds.
"While we struggle with a long-term solution we can't sit idly by and watch these counties and the citizens in these counties slip into potentially grave situations," Kitzhaber told lawmakers.
The committee heard public testimony, but took no action on the bill.
Some Southern Oregon counties have had their budgets for public safety decimated, leaving them with just a handful of resources to arrest, lock up and prosecute lawbreakers.
"You're talking about things like having a sheriff at the jail," said Rep. Bruce Hanna, R-Roseburg, in support of the bill.
But some county commissioners and local officials are skeptical of the plan.
"We cannot support it because it does not remedy the problem that we're dealing with," said Josephine County Commissioner Cherryl Walker.
Walker said the tax would hurt county residents, many of whom are elderly, unemployed and living on fixed incomes. She said this is why the county has repeatedly voted down levies that would have funded public safety.