Washington County weighs higher levy for public safety
Washington County commissioners are weighing what services to include in a higher public safety levy that will go to voters May 19.
The commissioners will consider public comments at their Jan. 28 business meeting, which starts at 6:30 p.m. in the auditorium of the Public Services Building at 155 N. 1st Ave., Hillsboro. The board is expected to take action then.
Two local-option tax levies, which Washington County has had for the better part of 20 years, are up for voter consideration on May 19.
Little debate is expected about a proposed five-year renewal of the levy that supports member libraries of the Washington County Cooperative Library Services. The levy will remain at 22 cents per $1,000 of taxable property value; voters had increased it from 17 cents in 2015.
The county operates only the West Slope Community Library and online services. The rest of the money goes to the nine cities and three nonprofit associations that run a total of 15 libraries.
But the public safety levy, also expiring after five years, is expected to generate discussion — because it will have to go up from the current 42 cents per $1,000 to maintain services. That rate has not changed for more than a decade.
Though no formal vote was taken during a Jan. 14 discussion, a majority of the county board favors a referral of a 47-cent levy. That is 2 cents more than the minimum to maintain jail staffing, prosecution and supervision of adult offenders, and diversion programs for juvenile offenders.
Specific additions are four more jail deputies, another deputy district attorney, three community corrections officers and a supervisor, and diversion services for juvenile offenders. The higher amount includes money for housing and employment specialists to help survivors of domestic violence, and rent assistance for a maximum of one year — known as "rapid rehousing" — to recently released offenders.
Commissioner Jerry Willey originally supported a standstill level of 45 cents. But he said he can defend a higher request of 47 cents to provide additional public safety services.
"But we don't pile on," he said.
Willey spoke after Board Chairwoman Kathryn Harrington sought consideration of more money that would be generated by a still-higher levy for an emergency shelter and expansion of the Safe Place youth shelter in Hillsboro. Those requests would add 1 to 2 cents to the proposed rate.
"I'm not willing to vote for a levy referral that keeps fixed-dollar amounts for (current) partners," Harrington said, referring to the county agencies that share in the current public safety levy.
A public opinion survey conducted for the county indicates that even at 47 cents, a campaign for the proposed levy would start with support of a bare majority of 51%, according to the sample.
Sheriff Pat Garrett and District Attorney Kevin Barton told the board that modern public safety relies not only on what law enforcement agencies do, but also on services such as mental health teams and help for survivors of domestic violence. They also said one agency cannot be funded at the expense of another.
"The levy has done a good job," Garrett said. "Each link in that chain of services provides public value that is strong and mutually supportive."
Garrett and Barton said the way the proposed 47-cent levy is structured will phase in the added staff they want and provides for some expanded services.
"It gives a little bit of everything to everyone," Barton said.
But Barton said that while funding services for homeless people may be a good idea, "one question is what place does that have in a public safety levy."
Both said they were concerned about a trend of reduced funding for county parole and probation officers, who supervise misdemeanor offenders. The community corrections department already lost some state aid for supervision of low-level felony offenders; the county came up with some stopgap funding for the current budget year.
Without misdemeanor-level supervision, Barton said, offenders in domestic violence, child and sex abuse crimes are likely to commit more serious crimes.
"Most domestic violence cases fall into the misdemeanor category — until they don't," Barton said. "They quickly escalate."
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