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Tax measure fails by wide margin.

Byline: Matt Cooper The Register-Guard

Lane County voters crushed a countywide income tax proposal in Tuesday's election, leaving in jeopardy a slew of public safety and other county services, plus 250 county jobs, unless the federal government renews crucial annual timber payments in the next six weeks.

Voters delivered what one official called a mandate against income taxes, with 71 percent against the 1.1 percent annual income tax. Voters also approved a cap of 2 percent on future income taxes, with 56 percent in support.

"Our direction is clear," said Commissioner Faye Stewart, board chairman. "Work with the federal government to get funds, and if that doesn't work, we make the cuts and focus on trying to provide the best services we can for the citizens."

For several months, county officials have been developing a plan for eliminating services and jobs to cover the shortfall. Tuesday's vote brought those cuts a big step closer.

County officials will meet May 30 to decide on putting together a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 without the federal money. The county would issue pink slips to workers on June 1.

"This is going to be ugly, no matter how we do it," Commissioner Bill Dwyer said.

Lane County and other rural counties in Oregon put money measures on Tuesday's ballot to seek to raise local revenue in the face of a possible loss of many tens of millions of dollars in federal timber payments. The federal government hasn't decided whether to renew more than $250 million in annual aid to the state, and without it or an alternative form of revenue, Lane and other counties must make significant cuts. The federal government historically has provided Lane with $47 million a year in timber aid.

In Coos County, voters flattened a five-year local option property tax, with 68 percent rejecting a measure that would have nearly doubled the property tax rate to fund the sheriff's department.

In Curry County, voters drubbed a five-year local option measure, with almost 67 percent defeating an effort to replace a possible loss of federal money by quadrupling the property tax rate.

Voters decided the fate of the money measures while the future of the county timber payments program remains uncertain. Oregon lawmakers will try to put a bill with the aid back before the president by the end of the month, but Congress and the White House remain at odds on the spending package.

Of Lane County's 191,000 registered voters, just under 81,000, or 42 percent, returned ballots.

Lane County voters' defeat of the tax was the 13th straight for a county money measure for public safety since 1996, and one of the most lopsided.

Bob Hooker, an organizer with the "We Said No" political action committee that opposed the tax, attributed its landslide defeat to an angry electorate.

After voters narrowly defeated a county income tax for public safety last fall, Commissioners Stewart, Dwyer and Bobby Green enacted the tax in February to replace a possible loss of federal aid. They put the tax on the ballot after Hooker's group organized a one-day signature drive that forced the issue.

"The voters had their voices heard," Hooker said. "I think they were just totally upset over the whole deal that happened in February with them imposing the tax on us. I don't think the anger has died down one bit on that."

Lane County was seeking to become only the second county in the state to tax business income, and the sole collector of a personal income tax. Multnomah County taxes business income. Its tax on personal income expired in 2005.

Hooker urged the county to immediately freeze hiring and raises. He said the county can avoid cutting vital services in part by controlling employee costs. "It's time the unions step up to the plate and look at possible concessions if they want to keep their people employed," Hooker said.

Absent an income tax or renewal of federal aid, the county's plans call for cutting about 25 percent of the jobs that are funded by the county's general fund, 25 percent of the jobs funded by the county's road fund, and almost half of the jobs funded by the parks fund.

The county could cut prosecution of felony drug possession cases; all six violent crimes detectives; supervision of misdemeanor offenders for domestic and sexual abuse; animal regulation; a clinic and/or emergency shelter for battered women; and all youth residential drug and alcohol treatment. Also, it could shut down 12 parks and partially close 23 more.

Sheriff Russell Burger said voters delivered the county board a mandate against an income tax. But without the federal money, he added, the department could lose 24-hour patrol and retain only 26 jail beds for 200-plus local offenders.

Without the federal money or an alternative, Burger said, "Lane County becomes a lot less livable and a lot less safe."

Stewart said he won't rule out the possibility of a future income tax or other money measure. But first he wants a citizen task force organized to study the county's financial predicament and offer solutions, he said.

Voter approval of the tax cap means that the board faces a limit of 2 percent on any future county income tax and the money can only go to public safety, Stewart said.

That could hinder the county's ability to use any future income taxes to pay for other services. The board had placed this provision in the ballot language to try to assure residents that income taxes would go only to public safety, Stewart said.

The county budget committee was wrestling with cuts for the coming year when news of the measure's defeat was announced soon after 8 p.m. The members quickly rescheduled upcoming meetings in hopes that the federal government will quickly decide the fate of the annual money, without which the county would face a $40 million annual hole.

"This is the worst day I've ever seen for county government," committee member Scott Bartlett said. "We're facing a fiscal tsunami."
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Title Annotation:Elections; Services, jobs in jeopardy after 71 percent of county voters reject plan
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 16, 2007
Words:1014
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