SALEM — Sheriffs from Oregon timber counties warned state lawmakers on Wednesday that their ability to protect their communities is continuing to decline as costs rise and funding plummets.
Sheriffs from Curry, Douglas, Josephine and Polk counties, along with the district attorney from Lane County, spoke to a legislative task force studying ways to help distressed counties reeling from the decline of federal timber revenue.
The speakers said their patrol forces are bare bones; jail inmates are routinely freed because there’s not enough staff; prosecutors don’t have enough resources to charge misdemeanor cases, and officers are in danger because they can’t count on backup.
“The criminals are so emboldened,” Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson told lawmakers. “I wish you could’ve been there the day we had to let them out of jail. That was quite the scene.”
State lawmakers are looking for ways to help the struggling counties now that a federal subsidy for timber counties has expired and local taxpayers have refused to make up the gap.
Law enforcement officials said they no-longer have round-the-clock patrols in rural areas and small towns. Even in towns with a police force, the lack of county jail capacity means officers can’t book suspected burglars and vandals into jail.
“Our property crime has skyrocketed. We just don’t have the ability to investigate those crimes ... as we once did,” said Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin.
The timber counties have some of the state’s lowest tax rates — a remnant of the days when they were flush with cash from a thriving timber industry. Voters in Josephine County last year rejected a levy to help pay for law enforcement services. Voters in three other counties — Curry, Josephine and Lane — will vote next month on levies that would help avoid future cuts.
Still, the counties can’t tax their way out of the problems because vast swaths of their land are publicly owned and not on tax rolls, said Rep. Bruce Hanna, co-chair of the legislative task force,
The only long-term solution is a change in federal policy that would allow more timber harvests, said Hanna, a Republican who represents Roseburg.
Rep. Val Hoyle of Eugene, the No. 2 Democrat in the House and co-chair of the Legislature’s timber-county task force, agreed.
“We want something that can pass through the (U.S.) Senate and the House, and we need it now,” Hoyle said.