Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Meet Low Taxes, Small Government


For those who dream of a Utopia where taxes are low and government puny, I know just the place.  In fact, it's the county where I've worked and volunteered for the past 30 years.

Welcome to Josephine County, Oregon!

Josephine County in southern Oregon has 83,000 people, 41% of whom live in the city of Grants Pass.  Those in the city limits pay for city services.  The 59% in the rural areas have low taxes and meager county services.  Voters in the county haven't fallen for a Democrat since FDR. 

The state of Oregon is a low tax state overall, ranking 40th of the 50 states in overall tax burden.  There are no sales taxes and property taxes are kept low by a ballot measure passed by voters 20 years ago.

But each county has a different situation and rural Josephine County's property taxes (the primary funding source for local government) are the second lowest in the state at just under $6.00 per $1000 of assessed value (about half of actual value).  Of that $6, just 77 cents goes to support county government.  And none dare speak of raising county taxes.  Each year, Josephine County collects $4.5 million in property taxes.  Oh, forgot to mention that over $1 million of that is dedicated to a jail bond passed several years ago.  Make that $3.5 million to run the county.  There are other special funds, flow-through dollars from state and federal agencies, but the county's total budget is still dangerously low.   Voters in the county expect timber revenue from federal lands to pay for their services but those dried up after aggressive logging in the 1980s.

The county government is responsible for many services.  Among the most prominent are:

Sheriff's Department
County Jail
Courts and District Attorney's Office
Health Department
Mental Health Department
Public Libraries
Parks
Roads
Fairgrounds
Two Small Airports
This is a beautiful county for those who love limited government.  I don't think it could be any more limited.  Here's how some of these services are currently faring:
Sheriff's Department:  After voters soundly defeated a sheriff's levy in 2007, most deputies were laid off and no one was on duty until 5:00 pm.  That meant zero law enforcement response during the school day.   For the 50,000 people living outside the city of Grants Pass, there is no other law enforcement.  Fortunately, a couple of short-term transfers from the federal government restored 24-hour patrols temporarily but they're on the chopping block again. (I have a particularly disturbing personal account of what law enforcement cuts meant, but read on, it's coming.)

County Jail:  Oregonians have passed ballot measures for mandatory sentences on all sorts of crimes.  The jails ended up having to release anyone not covered by those patchwork statutes almost immediately after arrest.  Because case law restricts staff:prisoner ratios, most law enforcement dollars rested here.

County Health Department:  All county support for important health services ended.  Only those functions mandated and supported from the state were offered.  In a county with high poverty, difficulty attracting sufficient physicians, high drug abuse and many needs, our dedicated health professionals had to turn most people away.

Mental Health Department:  For years, the county contributed nothing to mental health services, forcing therapists to restrict services to those with Medicaid eligibility (including children).  Then the County terminated its mental health services entirely, leaving a private non-profit organization to take it over.  This was not legal and court action followed. 

Public Libraries:  The county shuttered all four public libraries in 2008.  Fortunately a group of determined citizens raised enough money to open the main library 24 hours/week and the branch libraries from 9-12 hours/week.   Compare this to the 60 or so hours per week many libraries are available.  Funding is tenuous year to year.

Parks:  Some of the most beautiful parks anywhere are located in Josephine County.  Unfortunately, maintenance and needed upgrades to these facilities remain unfunded.  The parks are vital to the local economy but receive no general fund support and some are deteriorating.

Limited government is alive and well in Josephine County.  If not for handouts from the federal and state governments, the county would have already gone into bankruptcy.  So who needs government anyway?  My story then.
Two years ago, an employee (we'll call her Mary) called me in the wee hours of the morning.  She said she and her children would no longer be showing up to school.  Mary was an excellent employee, well skilled and with delightful children.  She was well connected with the community and had nieces and nephews at my school as well. Mary then proceeded to relate the following story to me. 

Mary and her brother and some of the kids were at her parents' home the night before.   There was a neighborhood dispute over an access road.  Mary's brother was building a fence to prevent the neighbors from driving across the lawn.  The neighbor came out yelling and threatening to kill him.  His sons followed and all were armed.  Mary ran to the house and called 911.  She asked for a deputy to prevent the bloodshed she could see coming.  The dispatcher asked if anyone had been shot yet.  "No, not yet."  The dispatcher apologized and said she couldn't spare a deputy unless a shooting had already happened.

The neighbor put his gun to her brother's head.  Seeing this and realizing no help was coming, Mary's father shot the neighbor.  Mary called 911 again and was told a deputy could be there in 45 minutes.  Meanwhile, she got her father, brother and kids into the house and barred the doors and windows.  They waited and waited and finally the deputies arrived.

Mary and her family asked the deputies to stay and protect them while they removed their belongings and left the house.  They knew it would be unsafe to stay there without police protection.  They were told the deputies could not stay and they were on their own.  The police did not plan to press charges against the father.  They fled in their vehicles with very few possessions and left town in the middle of the night, telling no one (except the police) where they were going.  
You want limited government, vigilante justice and low taxes?  I know just the place.