Oregon county begins dismantling its sheriff’s office in response to defeat of tax levy

The dismantling of the Josephine County Sheriff’s Office is under way. Last week, the department shut down its major crimes unit, saying current, unsolved cases have been transferred to the district attorney’s office. The records division, which handled non-emergency calls and reports, closed as well.

There’s more to come as the department shrinks in reaction to the defeat of a law enforcement property tax levy in the May 15 primary election. The measure would have increased the county government tax rate — the lowest in Oregon at 58 cents per $1,000 of assessed value — by $1.99 per $1,000.

The money would have supported the sheriff’s office, district attorney and juvenile department. A dozen Oregon counties are in similar financial shape: with tax bases too low to make up for the loss of millions in federal timber sales revenue. Although the payments have been in jeopardy for several years, voters and some elected officials have shown little appetite for increasing taxes.

Sheriff Gil Gilbertson warned severe cuts would result if the levy was defeated. Josephine County voters hammered it, 57 percent to 43 percent. Don Reedy, a county commissioner who favored it, paid the price as well. He finished a distant third among five candidates and won’t be on the runoff ballot in November.

After the election, Reedy said voters simply didn’t believe the county was broke.

More cuts took hold Tuesday, as the sheriff’s civil division reduced its hours to three hours a day, four days a week.

Road patrols diminish on Friday, dropping from 20 hours a day to eight hours a day, five days a week. The number of patrol deputy positions will drop from 24.5 to six. Three of those are contract deputies, specifically assigned to patrol Cave Junction, Bureau of Land Management forests and Oregon State Marine Board waterways. That leaves two deputies and a sergeant for the rest of the county.

The sheriff’s office issued a public warning for people in a “potentially volatile situation” such as being the protected person in a restraining order. “You may want to consider relocating to an area with adequate law enforcement services.”

The K-9 unit will be reduced to one dog. The other three will be retired and adopted by their handlers.

The county jail is next. In the coming weeks, about 60 inmates will be released as the corrections staff shrinks. The jail holds about 120 prisoners now. Thirty cells will be reserved for people held on immigration or other federal charges. Thirty spaces will be available for people accused or convicted of local charges. County officials expect two-thirds of the spots to be taken by people accused of Measure 11 crimes — murder, assault, rape and other violent acts.

Federal forests make up 60 percent of the land in many rural Oregon counties. Because federal land isn’t subject to property taxes, the federal government for decades shared timber sale revenue with the counties.

But that money dried up as environmental restrictions, lawsuits, recession and market changes reduced logging on federal forests by 90 percent since 1989. The change cost counties millions.

Congress replaced the timber sale money by passing the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act in 2000. In Oregon, 33 of 36 counties received money from it; nationwide, more than 700 counties in 41 states. The act was extended twice, but the last checks were delivered in 2011.

From The Oregonian.

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