Funding law enforcement has long been a hot button issue in Josephine County, and with the current revenue stream drying up, the JoCo Commissioners have made finding a sustainable option a focal point of their agenda this year.
The idea of a law enforcement taxing district was put to rest earlier this year, as widespread community support could not be found. This left the commissioners with a seasonal sales tax as the last best option, which has found the endorsement of Sheriff Dave Daniel.
This law enforcement retail activities tax, or LERAT for short, will be put to the voters in next month’s election as ballot measure 17-112.
Commissioner Dan DeYoung gave an introductory statement to kick off a press conference on LERAT that took place at the Anne G. Basker Auditorium Wednesday, Oct. 12 .
“This is a seasonal sales tax of three percent on all retail items,” explained DeYoung. “There’s a list of things that are exempt and we’ll get to that in a little bit, but what it does is it’s collected in Josephine County, and I don’t think anyone has tried this before, but it’s collected here on retail sales… All the money collected in Josephine County stays in Josephine County.”
DeYoung also noted that the sales tax will begin April 15 and last until Oct. 15 of each year if the voters approve it.
“We have a huge amount of tourist traffic during that time, and in the past tourist traffic has not paid for anything, as sales tax does everywhere else, and it will now pay for law enforcement.”
The money collected will be distributed according to population among three entities: the city of Grants Pass, the city of Cave Junction and Josephine County Sheriff’s Office.
Cave Junction is 2.3% of the population and would get 2.3% of revenue, 44% would go to Grants Pass law enforcement, 48% to the Josephine County Sheriff’s Office and the remaining 5% would stay with the merchant.
DeYoung was joined by fellow commissioners Herman Baertschiger and Darin Fowler; Grants Pass City Council members Rick Riker, Joel King and Valerie Lovelace; Cave Junction city recorder Rebecca Patton; and Sheriff Dave Daniel.
Daniel said the sheriff’s office took a $1.5 million budget hit this year, which forced his department, with the help of the commissioners, to “scratch and claw” for resources.
The sheriff’s office was funded for 24 personnel last year, but the budget hit forced that number down to 18 this year, shuttering the detectives division.
“We’re really kinda working on a skeleton crew,” the sheriff said. “We were able to keep our 20 hours a day timeframe for working; we’re still not at 24/7 working hours but I’m hoping to change that. These are just the facts.”
Daniel added that he is anticipating a $2.5 million budget reduction next year if LERAT does not pass. “I don’t know if I can sustain 20 hours a day of service at that level.”
Without LERAT, Sheriff Daniel believes he will have only six remaining deputies – one patrol deputy and five contract deputies. “Obviously a devastating impact to the county.”
With LERAT, the sheriff’s office could expand to 40 or more deputies. “That opens wide up a fully flushed detectives division, a patrol division that is up to seven or eight patrol deputies at a time. This would be a positive step for Josephine County, definitely with 24/7 patrols.”
CJ city recorder Becky Patton was invited to speak on behalf of the city of Cave Junction regarding what impact LERAT would have in the Valley.
“Thank you for this invitation to talk,” Patton began. “I was unprepared but I never miss an opportunity to share my voice. Back in the day Cave Junction had its own law enforcement, supported by our timber industry. When that went away, life changed pretty dramatically for the Valley and for the city. In recent years, we have contracted with Josephine County law enforcement, which has been amazing. The moment we had a presence in our environment, behaviors started to change, and change for the better.”
Patton recounted the changes she saw from her vantage point as city recorder from before a service contract was signed with the sheriff to after, from citizens being “terrified” to being “safe” and “comfortable.”
The city recorder added it is a change “we don’t want to lose.”
“If this tax does not pass, I expect Cave Junction to see an immediate response again, and it won’t be for the better.”
Patton added that she doesn’t like the Illinois Valley being stereotyped as the “Wild, Wild West,” and fears new oxygen will be breathed into that stereotype without LERAT.
“We have a groovy little place to live in… It’s crazy how nice it is here and I would like to still enjoy living here and not feel scared. And I’m excited that the voters have an opportunity to share their voice and vote on this measure.”
Baertschiger gave a brief history lesson that recounted how funding for county law enforcement became scarce. The board chair laid blame for the county’s economic woes squarely at the feet of declining timber receipts from the federal government.
“It paid for just about everything here in Josephine County,” said Baertschiger. “Not only our roads but our schools, our fairgrounds, courthouse buildings. We were just blessed with this money. In fact, if you look at the patch on the sheriff’s office on the side of Dave’s arm, there’s a log truck on that patch, because those timber receipts paid for our sheriff’s office.”
Baertschiger said the timber receipts went away because the “political winds” shifted and “it no longer was popular to utilize natural resources off of federal lands.”
“Now we’re down to very little,” added Baertschiger, “and that’s how we got here.”
“We came up with this idea after having multiple forums across this county and a tremendous amount of citizen input,” Baertschiger said. “This is what has risen to the top.”
Commissioner Fowler read aloud the question that will appear on the ballot: “Shall Josephine County tax most retail activity at a rate of three percent between April 15 and Oct. 15?”
He then read the accompanying explanatory statement: “Josephine County does not currently tax retail activities. A ‘yes’ vote would create a three percent tax on most retail activities that occur between April 15 and Oct. 15 of each year. Retail activities would include most transfers of products or services to consumers. Such transfers would include deliveries to consumers at an address in Josephine County. Such orders as fulfilled by online merchants. And retail activities would not include items that are exempted by state law and this ordinance, such as groceries, rental payments, investments and prescription medicine.
“Revenue from this tax would be used exclusively for law enforcement purposes, including related administrative expenses. Distribution to incorporated cities would be based on population, and the Grants Pass City Council has declared they will use revenue from this tax to fund the Grants Pass Police Department. This measure would direct the Grants Pass City Council to reduce its existing public safety levy from $1.79 to $0.79 per $1,000 assessed value for taxes beginning July 1, 2023 or at any other time to be determined by the city council. City Council shall retain discretion to make any necessary budget adjustments to ensure appropriate city law enforcement funding.
“Participants in retail activities would collect the tax as part of consumers’ payment. After retaining a portion of the funds to cover administrative costs, the retail participant would transfer the tax to the Josephine County tax collector. Failure to collect the tax from consumers or to transfer the tax receipts to the tax collector could lead to a finding of noncompliance, a civil lawsuit and monetary penalties. Participants could appeal a finding of noncompliance through the circuit court.
“The Board of Josephine County Commissioners would not make any decisions regarding compliance with the ordinance. The ordinance creates a retail activities tax board which would oversee compliance with the requirements of this ordinance. The ordinance would not require an additional tax return. Instead, the retail activities tax board would be able to request tax filings from the Oregon Department of Revenue if and when necessary to enforce compliance with this ordinance.
“Upon approval by a majority of voters in the selection, this ordinance would go into effect March 15, 2023. The ordinance would not apply to transactions that happened before this effective date.”
After reading the explanatory statement, Fowler weighed in with his own stance: “This is a moment in Josephine County history, when we get to make a decision on what the future of law enforcement funding is gonna be.”
He went on, “We knew this day was coming up to 20 years ago, that someday the federal government would stop paying their promised money and never let us back into the forest to get the stumpage fees.”
DeYoung’s concluding message before the press conference ended was, “We are sending this to the voters. It’s for you. It’s up to you now. It’s out of our hands.”