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Hurdles after hurdles.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Necessity, it is said, is the mother of invention. It remains to be seen whether it will be the mother of a Lane County public safety district.

Since the passage of Ballot Measure 5 in 1990, Lane County's law enforcement system has steadily deteriorated, while the demands placed upon it by a growing population have increased. The Lane County Jail releases thousands of inmates each year because of crowding. An understaffed county sheriff's office is unable to investigate felonies or effectively combat the region's raging methamphetamine epidemic and the multitude of crimes it spawns.

The district attorney's office has lost nearly a third of its prosecutors and most of its investigators since 1981, while its caseload has doubled. Juvenile crime has soared, as the county's ability to incarcerate and help troubled youth has diminished.

Confronted by these grim realities, county commissioners last year decided to plan for the possible formation of an independent countywide public safety district.

Creating a new taxing district in a county where residents time and again have made clear their dislike for new taxes is a daunting task. But county officials, frustrated by the failings of the current public safety system and the absence of viable alternatives, have methodically proceeded with planning. Now, they're gearing up for a push to put the proposal on the November 2006 ballot.

On April 19, county commissioners will meet with officials from Eugene and Springfield to discuss amending the Metro Plan to allow formation of the new district. Other hurdles lie ahead. The state Legislature must approve a bill allowing the county to proceed, and the county must win approval from the Local Government Boundary Commission.

If all these steps can be maneuvered and county commissioners give the proposal their final blessing, the county would then face the biggest hurdle of all - convincing county voters to approve another layer of government that would cost them more taxes.

County officials have modest reason to hope the public safety district might not share the dismal fate met by other county law enforcement proposals. They commissioned a survey that showed general awareness of law enforcement funding problems. What's more, a modest majority supports a $100 annual property tax increase for a public safety district.

The survey results are both encouraging and sobering. The taxes a majority of voters are willing to pay would support only a fraction of the programs county officials initially envisioned. Moreover, the survey showed support for the district plunging as the price tag increased. As a result, county officials have scaled back the scope and cost of their proposal.

In coming months, both Eugene and Springfield will have a significant say in the details of the proposed district through the Metro Plan amendment process. Springfield officials are likely to look unfavorably on anything other than a no-frills plan that focuses on bolstering the county's corrections and prosecution capacities, while their Eugene counterparts may demand a greater emphasis on treatment and prevention.

County officials must also find a way to deal with the property tax revenues that other taxing districts would lose in areas where a new public safety tax would push property taxes over the state's property tax limits. (When that happens, taxes are reduced or "compressed" to fit under the cap, and city, library, port, fire, water, park and other taxing districts lose revenues.) If the county fails to resolve this problem, it could face formidable and well-organized opposition in the election.

The hurdles promise to be numerous and difficult. But if the county succeeds in clearing them, the result could be a narrowly focused, cost-efficient law enforcement proposal that might possibly succeed where so many others have failed.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Path to a public safety district will be difficult
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Apr 5, 2005
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