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NORCOR board mulls new tax levy

The four counties that make up the regional jail are researching the feasibility of returning to voters in May 2018 to ask for a permanent tax rate to provide stable funding for the jail.

An identical measure lost by just 41 votes last May. It passed by wide margins in Hood River, Sherman and Gilliam counties, but lost by 10 percentage points in Wasco, the largest county.

After doing some homework on whether there are any other possible May 2018 tax measures in their counties, the members of the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facility jail board will come back in October and decide whether to get on the May ballot.

A top concern in Wasco County was when the school district would be placing a bond issue on the ballot to replace schools, however, that ballot is not slated until November 2018.

Last fall, the jail finally paid off a 20-year bond to build the jail -- the bond was set at 26 cents per $1,000 of assessed property valuation — and the proposed permanent tax rate also is set at 26 cents per $1,000. That means taxes would not increase for property owners in the four-county regional jail district if the permanent tax rate was approved.

The 26 cents raised $1.3 million last year. That money would be used to help offset payments the counties make toward jail operations and to stabilize the jail budget. Now, the counties pay about $3.8 million per year toward the $6.7 million it costs to run the jail yearly.

As when the initial tax measure was proposed, Gilliam and Sherman counties would rather not go forward with it, but are willing to accept what the board as a whole decides on, said Gilliam County Judge Steve Shaffer.

At an Aug. 17 jail board meeting, Shaffer said of Wasco and Hood River counties, “We want you guys to go to your taxpayers for funding.”

In other matters at the Aug. 17 meeting, Sherman County Sheriff Brad Lohrey, who represents the four counties’ sheriffs on the jail board, said the sheriffs toured the jail recently and came away impressed.

He said the programming for inmates, cleanliness of the jail and good attitude of corrections deputies was “probably the best I’ve ever seen.”

At the meeting, Shaffer noted that a group that has been picketing the jail in protest of its housing immigration detainees has expressed interest in supporting a stable tax rate for the jail. He hoped that could be pursued.

Wasco County Commissioner Rod Runyon said of the last tax measure effort that Wasco County “did not have the time and effort into the thing that we should’ve had.”

Wasco County Juvenile Department Director Molly Rogers said former Wasco County Judge Dan Eriksen was willing to head up a political action committee to promote the tax measure.

Shaffer said the two easternmost counties are financially viable, and he said adding the permanent tax rate in Gilliam County would force other taxing entities into compression.

Compression occurs when non-school taxing entities exceed the maximum allowable cumulative taxing rate of $15 per $1,000 of assessed property value. When compression occurs, each entity must accept a smaller amount of taxes than what it is authorized to collect.

Shaffer said, “Of course we would support NORCOR in the decision that was made by the NORCOR board.”

But he said adding a jail tax rate in his county would mean “our health districts, fire districts, city county, would all end up with a smaller slice.”

Hood River County Commissioner Ron Rivers told the Chronicle his fellow county commissioners are willing to try again to get a permanent tax rate passed for the regional jail.

Runyon told the Chronicle he would be checking with county election officials to see if they have heard of any other possible issues that might be on the May 2018 ballot.

Hood River County is struggling the most at this point to make its $1.6 million annual payment to help keep the jail running.

Rivers said his county spent $1 million in reserves to balance the current budget, something it can’t afford to do next year.

His county has one of the 10 lowest property tax rates in the state, at just $1.42 per $1,000, compared to $3.50 in Wasco County, for example.

Hood River County has such a low tax rate because of what were once high timber tax receipts. The county is still getting those receipts, but they don’t cover costs “in the bad times,” Rivers said.

He said mandatory payments toward employee retirement costs are sometimes triple the amount that the county receives in increased property tax revenue each year.


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