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Proposed 12-cent increase per $1,000 of assessed value in county's local option property tax will come before voters in May

PHOTO COURTESY OF CLACKAMAS COUNTY - From left: Clackamas County Commissioners Mark Shull, Sonya Fischer, Chair Tootie Smith, Paul Savas and Martha Schrader pose for a photo while out in the community responding to the ice storm that hit the county Valentines Day weekend. Clackamas County commissioners were split over whether to send a proposed increase of the local option public-safety levy to voters on the May ballot.

In a purely symbolic vote, commissioners decided 3-2 to support Clackamas Sheriff Angela Brandenburg's proposal to increase the levy by 12 cents. County Chair Tootie Smith, who ran for chair on a campaign of ensuring county public safety is well-funded, and Commissioner Mark Shull, who was appointed board liaison for public safety earlier this week, were the two "Nay" votes.FILE PHOTO - Clackamas County Sheriff Angela Brandenburg

The levy provides roughly $13 million per year in funding for the sheriff's office. The increase would make for a taxation rate of 36.8 cents per $1,000 of assessed value and would bring an additional $6 million in revenue each year. A home valued around $400,000 would pay about $147 in public-safety taxes per year, if the proposed levy passes.

Known colloquially as the Clackamas Sheriff's Levy, the property tax was first passed by voters in 2006 and has been approved every five years since. According to Brandenburg, her office's cost of doing business has increased to the point that if the county maintains its current funding level, CCSO would lose its ability to fund approximately 12 deputy positions. The proposed increase would also fund some mental health beds in the jail, new deputy positions and a body-camera program.

This is the first time in the levy's 15-year history that the sheriff has asked for its property-tax levy to be increased.

Since Brandenburg is a duly-elected county official, she has the ability to send the increase to voters herself, but felt it was necessary to receive the support of the board. The board subsequently felt a public hearing was appropriate in order to allow residents to voice their support or opposition to the proposed increase.

The board heard from seven individuals who painted a broad spectrum of opinion.

Those in favor of the increase included Dan Kraus, a retired CCSO detective; John Wentworth, Clackamas County district attorney; Melissa Erlbaum, executive director of Clackamas Women's Services; and Esther Nelson, a Molalla resident and executive director of nonprofit group Safety Compass, which advocates on behalf victims of sex trafficking.

"I know that excellence is important to Sheriff Brandenburg, and it's important to those of us who live in Clackamas County," Wentworth said. "That's why I'm asking that this board support the public safety levy, giving the voters an opportunity to show their pride in the work that we do, the services that we provide, and to provide safety to our citizens. It is a relatively inexpensive rise in price to ensure that our basic needs are met."

Those against included Milwaukie resident Elvis Clark who said that economic hardships faced by many county residents make this a difficult time to ask for a tax increase — and Boring resident Cassie Wilson who feels that the social justice movements spurred on last summer following the death of George Floyd indicate that the public is more interested in dismantling systems that uphold white supremacy such as law enforcement, and should therefore be looking at disinvestment of the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office and others.

The board asked Brandenburg to respond to the idea of disinvestment, to which she replied there would always be a need for law enforcement, and therefore this is the time to "lean in" to funding for law enforcement in order to ensure the men and women of the sheriff's office have the appropriate training to respond better to certain situations.

Michele Veenker, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness' Clackamas County Chapter, spoke to the board as a county resident, saying she supported the idea of increasing bed capacity for mental illness, but questioned whether the sheriff's office is the best agency to administer such services. She also suggested that diversion programs could be a better use of county tax dollars in order to keep the mentally ill out of jails to begin with.

"The proposed mental health beds, while not an answer to our problems, will at least be a step in the right direction," Veenker said. "That being said, you cannot divert your eye from the question of: 'Why is our jail taking the place of resources outside that system that could prevent our loved ones from being arrested in the first place?'"

Shull told his board colleagues that in speaking with constituents over the past few weeks, residents seem supportive of continuing the levy at its current rate. He did not see support for an increase at this time.

"The comments I got almost universally was, 'Mark, after the last 12 months, isn't this the time to give us a break?'" Shull said. "The sentiment in the county is that this is a tax increase, and I got a lot of resentment from people on it."

Commissioner Martha Schrader noted that while Clackamas County residents often express their frustration and opposition toward being saddled with regional taxation efforts where they see no benefit, this levy isn't an example. COURTESY PHOTO - CLACKAMAS COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE - Sheriff Angela Brandenburg interacts with Oregon National Guard members deployed to help CCSO respond to the ice storm by performing wellness checks in the local community.

"That's not the case here," Schrader said. "This is really directly for the people of Clackamas County… I would say to our citizens that our sheriff's office has been front and center in some of the most difficult times. I think they would be willing, given the information and hearing directly from the people that keep them safe and went door-to-door the last few days, to potentially support this."

Following the symbolic approval of the board, county counsel will work with the sheriff's office to complete the ballot-titling process to submit the levy proposal to the county clerk's office in order to be put on the May 18 ballot.

Update: Michele Veenker shares the rest of the testimony she had planned for the county commissioners on this topic.

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