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A taxing issue.

Byline: Peter Sorenson For The Register-Guard

To continue to serve the public well, Lane County government needs more money. The question is, how do we get there?

After more than 10 years of serving the citizens of Lane County, it's my opinion that enacting a flat-rate income tax or placing such a tax on the May 2007 ballot is definitely not the way. In fact, I fear that this will make it much harder in the long run for Lane County to make the case that more money is desperately needed.

First, a little history. On Oct. 20, 2000, President Bill Clinton signed the "forest county payments law," which gave Lane County an estimated $47 million each year for six years - $20 million for our county's general needs, $20 million for roads, and $7 million for schools.

I was there in the Oval Office that day, because I had been the only Democratic county commissioner in the nation to give invited testimony on the on the bill before the House of Representatives. President Clinton handed me one of the pens he had used to sign this law, which has done a lot to help Lane County and all counties with substantial federal forest land.

The federal government owns more than half of the land in our county, and it doesn't pay any property taxes to us. That seems unfair, but as a lawyer I know that the Supremacy Clause in the U.S. Constitution forbids a county from taxing the federal government. I also know that the federal government, over many years, has tried in a variety of ways to help local governments with their revenue issues.

In recent votes, Congress has reaffirmed its intent to honor the federal government's responsibility. Did Congress give us all that we wanted? No, but it will give policy-makers time to work on a longer-term federal solution. In the future, could the federal government make payments to us based on the amount of carbon sequestered by federal forests?

Lane County faces major problems. Our tax base is the lowest in the state, and we get the smallest amount of revenue of any Oregon county. Lane County had 2,000 employees in 1980, and has 1,300 now, while the population grew from 275,000 to 335,000. Our hardworking employees can't be expected to do more and more with tens of millions of dollars of reduced revenue.

Lane County should live within its means, and every year we do balance the budget - but we must also provide necessary public services. Lane County isn't just operating a jail and a system of prosecution: it's involved with extension, mental health, public health, parks, elections, transportation and on and on. The federal and state governments require that Lane County provide many services, often without providing funds to support them.

The county has repeatedly wrestled with its financial problems. The commissioners have gone to the voters many times with a consistent theme: Public safety programs need more money. Here are a few examples of this approach:

November 2000, jail improvement bonds: 62 percent no.

November 2000, Lane County local option tax, 59 percent no.

November 2002, jail improvement bonds, 61 percent no.

November 2002, public safety emergency communications bonds, 55 percent no.

November 2006, with the cryptic title "Charter Amendment to Limit Income Tax," 51 percent no.

Then came the Feb. 21 vote on enacting a county income tax, similar to the one defeated a few months earlier: A 1.1 percent income tax, all dedicated to public safety. Big business interests liked the fact that 86 percent of the tax would be paid by income earners, and only 14 percent by business. The historic vote was 3-2 in favor of enacting the tax.

Why did I vote no? I think Lane County needs more money, and it won't get that support until the community supports what county government does. We must recognize that the public has consistently rejected county measures, especially when the sole focus is on "public safety," often to the detriment of other services. Another public vote will get the predictable negative response.

We need public safety. But we also need well-baby visits and nutrition education. We also need parks, a sustainable economy and more recycling. We need our roads maintained, and help for our psychiatric patients. We need the public's votes counted accurately, and our taxes assessed fairly.

Isn't one definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?

For this election there will be relatively little public information, no time for much community buy-in, no Voters' Pamphlet, and the same old scare tactics. Will the scare tactics work this time? Probably not. It truly is a shame that we've lost precious months while the board majority pushes a flat tax, regressive in nature, devoted solely to public safety.

I would like to see a new approach: Respect the votes of the people, balance the budget with what we have, and build support for county government. Hold open houses for people to give their views. Bring the board and senior county officials out to really listen to people. Let's respect the view that county government isn't just about one important aspect of what we do. Let's listen to ideas of efficiency. Let's get out there, listen and build the support for all of the good things county government does.

Change course, or more of the same? The answer seems obvious to me.

Peter Sorenson represents the south Eugene district on the Lane County Board of Commissioners.
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Title Annotation:Commentary; Con: Lane County must respect voters, gain support
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Apr 22, 2007
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