With an absence of administrative actions, the Board of Josephine County Commissioners moved quickly to public comments at its July 6 weekly business session, held at the Anne G. Basker Auditorium in Grants Pass.
First, though, the commissioners honored some long-time employees for their years of service.
These employees were: David King – Community Corrections, 20 years; Chris Watson – Sheriff’s Office, 20 years; and Tina Nielens – Surveyor’s Office, five years.
“We’d like to thank all those dedicated employees and servants of the Josephine County citizens for their years of service,” said Board Chair Herman Baertschiger.
“Moving right along at the speed of whatever, we will take comments from the citizens.” Baertschiger then addressed a member of the audience that was surprised the board had already arrived at the public testimony portion, given that it usually takes place late in a meeting: “Yeah, we’re already there!”
Meeting frequenter Judy Ahrens approached the podium to thank the commissioners for allowing their auditorium to be used for the reading of the Declaration of Independence, an event Ahrens said had been held for a fifth consecutive year.
“It’s our fifth year and it’s so pronounced,” Ahrens said. “Such a short document, but yet such a meaningful document… so meaningful for our freedom.”
Ahrens went on to thank Josephine County Liberty Watch for providing security during the event, Josephine County Republican Women for bringing food, and Bill Meyer for acting as the event’s emcee. She looks forward to the sixth annual reading next year.
“Once again, the community knows now why we have our barbecues.”
During the remainder of her testimony, Ahrens talked about her efforts to clean up trash in the community and commended herself for setting a good example.
“We live by example, whether it’s our families and kids and teaching them not just to throw their cups out the windows. I’m seeing our community get better and better.”
Bill Hunker of Merlin used his time at the podium to discuss Josephine County’s transition in recent decades from a prosperous community to a poor one, and made the argument that county political leaders have been part of the problem.
“We had no property tax from 1970 to 1980, and a very minimal tax base during the ensuing years,” Hunker explained. “We were rolling in money, we built projects and bloated the county government to 696 employees in 2003.
“Boy, those were the days. My friends in county leadership thought they would never end. But did they ever put any rainy day funds away? The answer was no.”
Hunker blamed the county commissioners of that era for sitting idly by as 40 lumber mills closed down, which “thwarted our economy’s plans.”
“We’ve endured decades of reactive, not proactive county leadership,” added Hunker. “The citizens trust their commissioners to protect the county, but they fumble the ball time and time again.
“It’s therefore galling to hear that we’re the problem because we only pay 58 cents in taxes. Let me say clearly: It is only our low property taxes that keeps Josephine County from becoming an Appalachia of Oregon.”
Hunker concluded his remarks with, “Let’s stop blaming the citizens for the county’s failures, and begin to hold our county leaders responsible.”
Commissioner Dan DeYoung thanked Ahrens for her involvement with the Declaration of Independence reading, and took the time to slam The New York Times publication for failing to publish the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July for the first time in many years.
Commissioner Darin Fowler added, “It was (supposed to be) their 100th anniversary of doing that.”
“And they missed it,” tacked on DeYoung.
DeYoung issued a forceful rebuttal to Hunker’s criticism: “Mr. Hunker, you are looking at one commissioner that has been here two years, one that’s been here four years and one that’s been here six years, and everything you mentioned right up there at that microphone happened well before we took office, yet you want to blame us.”
The commissioner went on, “We’re not blaming the citizens for 58 cents. We’re only bringing out that 58 cents is what is frozen by Measure 5.”
In response to Hunker’s Appalachia comment, DeYoung pointed out that property taxes are quadrupled mere miles away in Jackson County.
“It is the 58 cents that is the problem, Mr. Hunker,” opined DeYoung. “And other than that we can only deal with levies or taxing districts… Every time anybody wants to fund that Sheriff’s Department, there’s the ‘No New Taxes’ people pounding up and down in front of the courthouse, and yet they want 24/7 patrol, they want the jail open, they want to have a full and vibrant law enforcement community.”
“To sit up there and tell us that we’re remiss in our duty – I take offense to that,” concluded DeYoung.
“Commissioner Baertschiger is going to have four forums… in which people can say what we can do and what we think will fund law enforcement. And then we’re gonna land on one and when we land on one we’re gonna expect some people that are normally nos to come along and at least kick it into neutral to give law enforcement a damn chance in this community.
“I’ve lived here 72 years. I don’t like sales tax, I don’t like taxes. I also don’t like lawlessness. Now, you smirk because I say I don’t like taxes, but you know what? You got another way to pay it? You gonna win the lottery or something? I didn’t think so.”
At the end of DeYoung’s fiery accord, Fowler made a point of shaking his peer’s hand and saying, “Nicely done. I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
While DeYoung’s remarks were pointed, he avoided crossing the line into a personal attack. Fowler crossed that line quickly during his comments.
“It’s easy to come in here every few weeks and tell us how things should be and are in your own mind. But I say you get off your wrinkled retirement ass and get on a committee or run for commissioner instead of coming in here and tossing rocks like a small child.”
This prompted a rare reprimand from Chair Baertschiger, who told Fowler, “Commissioner, restrain yourself.”
Fowler wasn’t done: “You may be articulate, but you’re also very stupid, and that annoys me to no end, that you think representative government is supposed to get up and tell you what to do. You’ve lost your way, sir.”
Baertschiger struck a more respectful but no less angry tone when it was his turn to speak: “I know people are frustrated over the funding… I’ll be frank: The anger needs to be pointed at (senators) Wyden and Merkley. They have obstructed harvesting timber on federal land. Wyden has been in there for over 20 years and he is the major reason we do not have timber revenue in Josephine County that paid for everything. So let’s put our anger at where it needs to be directed.
“I hope you go to their town halls and I hope you give them the riot act, because that’s where this all came from.”