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Lane County could use donations to help fund public safety.

Byline: GUEST VIEWPOINT By Carol Berg-Caldwell

Passions run high concerning the Lane County Budget Committee's recommendation not to reopen 84 recently closed jail beds, given a likely reduction in state funds paid to Oregon counties. The committee saw a need to hold in reserve the recently granted federal payments that have no guarantee of renewal. However, many citizens see a severely reduced law enforcement system and want to reopen the 84 beds immediately. Look at the letters to the editor, both pro and con; will the polarization stop?

There is an opportunity for us all to join together and seek a solution. We can take at least one innovative step now.

Let's create a way for the county to receive voluntary donations in support of the many valuable public safety programs it operates. Donors can support public safety by designating which department is to receive the contribution - jail needs, crime prevention, alcohol and drug rehabilitation, mental health services, child abuse prevention, homeless shelters or other valuable services. All these programs work together to secure an acceptable level of public safety.

Since March, I've been giving $20 to the county each month, asking that it be divided among child abuse and domestic violence prevention, mental health services, homeless programs and job training and rehabilitation programs at the county jail. Jails are necessary, as are social services and crime prevention programs. They are the carrot, jail is the stick. Both the carrot and the stick need our support.

I recently signed a petition to reopen the 84 jail beds. The circulators acknowledged my concern that expanding jail capacity must not further reduce funding for social services and crime prevention programs, and accepted that qualifier with my signature. I believe the Fund the Jail group understands the importance of all parts of our public safety system.

My $20 monthly contribution isn't much, but it's what I can manage now, simply by skipping a couple of movies and dinner out each month. Some have more to give. Larger contributors will want to take advantage of tax write-offs available.

Supporters of the voluntary contribution plan soon will be working with county staff to structure a special account for donations. One commissioner has called this the "passion to action" approach. We can channel our passions and energy into creating an effective solution, one that will shore up crime prevention, social services and jail capacity for the long run. The donation program is a first step in finding the long-term solution, because it will show that the public supports Lane County's public safety system.

Tax measures to fund Lane County public safety have failed 13 times in the last decade. Why? Many Eugene voters who generally support full funding for government services helped defeat these measures. They already pay for a fully funded city government - one that even now appears able to avoid cutbacks in service or personnel. And many simply don't recognize the critical role county- operated programs play in keeping our area safe and livable.

After Measure 5 passed in 1990, state legislators wrote a formula for dividing property tax revenue that shortchanged county operations throughout the state. State legislators must craft a more equitable division of property tax revenues among schools, cities and counties.

In the meantime, Lane County residents might consider some interim solutions to the chronic underfunding of county operations. Rural residents might vote for a dedicated levy to fund rural law enforcement. The county could get more support from the better-funded city governments. Local taxes on pollution and environmental degradation could win voter acceptance. It's unfortunate that legislative leaders have allowed private timberland owners in Oregon to escape paying their fair share of the cost of government. The Legislature's exemption of most private timberland from property taxation has hurt Lane County, compounding the problem caused by reductions in federal payments for public forestland in lieu of taxes.

Regardless of the long-term solution, a voluntary fund drive will get us on the right track now. It gives those who recognize the county's untenable situation an opportunity to express their support for the valuable services that Lane County still strives to provide.

Carol Berg-Caldwell was co-chairwoman of the Enough is Enough Political Action Committee, which opposed a 1999 Lane County public safety tax proposal. Randy Prince of Citizens for Public Accountability assisted with this essay.
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Title Annotation:Local Opinion
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jun 17, 2009
Words:722
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