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Costly measures more likely to fail, tax review finds.

Byline: Matt Cooper The Register-Guard

A police data analyst said he has confirmed what many people might suspect: When it comes to Lane County tax proposals, the more it would cost the public, the more likely it is that voters will reject it.

Eugene police planner Terry Smith knows this discovery won't exactly electrify Nobel Prize judges. But review of 20 years of county public safety proposals yields important findings, he said - including the level of a modest tax increase that voters might be willing to accept.

Smith's research could help a county government that has failed for years to persuade voters to pay more for a public safety system that officials say is failing. The current board of commissioners has embarked on a countywide discussion of county services and how to pay for them, hoping to draw broad input from the public.

Smith, who will present his findings to the board today, did the work to help the Eugene Police Department plan staffing levels.

The county's inability to slow its spending on law enforcement and other services, plus its failure to raise new revenue, means the county will continue to cut services such as the provision of jail space. Smith said that can affect the number of police needed in the city. The less time the county holds criminals in custody, the greater the likelihood those criminals will be in communities breaking more laws.

In his review of 14 county public safety measures dating to 1987, Smith said voters have increasingly resisted proposals that cost more.

Only 27 percent of voters supported the most expensive measure in the period, a 1996 proposal for the sheriff's office that would have cost each county resident about $114 a year for three years, Smith said. But 67 percent approved a 1993 jail measure that carried a per-capita cost of just under $26 per year, Smith noted.

There are some exceptions to Smith's general rule. The proposed county income tax last November would have had a fairly large per-capita financial impact: $69. But voters nearly approved it. It lost 49 percent to 51 percent.

Still, cost explains the result most of the time for each measure, and the form in which the county sought the money - property tax or income tax - was irrelevant, Smith said.

"This seems to confirm my often voiced opinion that Oregon's and Lane County's economic situation - high housing cost and relatively low incomes - is the real driver of the tax resistance we see," he wrote in the report.

Smith also found something that might give hope to the board - a modest increase that the public might accept.

When he charted the twin lines of voter opposition and the cost of measures, Smith found a nexus at $40 per citizen - that's the highest amount for which at least half of voters might say yes, he said.

That amount might be palatable to voters, but the money raised wouldn't solve the county's deficit in public safety.

A tax of $40 per capita would raise $13.6 million a year, Smith said. That's less than half of the $32 million that the board sought in May's income tax proposal, which voters overwhelmingly defeated.

A big tax increase "hasn't worked, isn't going to work, probably will never work," Smith said. "You have to take baby steps."

Commissioner Faye Stewart, board chairman, said he could support a small tax increase - but only if the public proposes it. Stewart said he's encouraged by the county's past success with small levies, as opposed to what he called the big "fix-all" tax efforts that have failed recently.

He hopes that the county's continuing discussion with the public will end with a strategy for funding critical services such as public safety.

"If we put together some focus groups and they come up with a recommendation, if it is a tax increase, we need to stand behind what our citizens tell us," he said.

Smith also said that while the income of Lane County citizens is rising, and they are paying relatively less in taxes than they were 20 years ago, they're spending even more, on everything from cars and shopping to alcohol and illicit drugs. And in the process, they're amassing substantial debt, he said.

That spending and debt can influence how voters feel when asked to pay higher taxes, Smith said. Discussions about voter spending have been absent from the ongoing debate about how to pay for county public safety services.

"Some voters want to talk about how much government costs, but clearly a very real problem is how much voters spend and some of the things they spend on," Smith wrote.
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Title Annotation:General News; A Eugene police study of county proposals also measures out a more palatable tax level
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 1, 2007
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