Our Opinion: Washington County levies aren't too much to ask
Washington County's elected leaders will be the first to admit this is a really tough time for them to go out to voters and ask for money.
But we're still recommending that Washington County residents vote "yes" on both Measure 34-296, bolstering the county's two-decades-old public safety levy to meet the mounting challenges of policing in a growing county where nearly half of all residents live outside of cities that have their own police departments; and Measure 34-297, renewing the library services levy that makes sure that 16 libraries throughout the county can serve each community, whether incorporated and unincorporated, and every demographic.
Let's address two things right away.
First, the existing levies are expiring, but not until the end of the next fiscal year — in other words, June 2021. So these measures won't actually kick in until midway through next year. Whether they pass or fail will have no effect on your property tax bill this fall.
Second, the measures aren't anything unfamiliar. County commissioners are asking voters to renew the library levy at its current level of 22 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. It's the same amount voters approved back in November 2015. The public safety levy is a modest 5-cent increase over the current rate of 42 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or about $15 more per year for the owners of a $300,000 home in Washington County.
Yes, we're living through a tumultuous and frightening period right now. No one knows exactly when the coronavirus pandemic will subside. No one knows exactly what the toll will be in human lives or economic losses. No one knows exactly what awaits us on the other side of this current epidemic wave, whenever it peaks, whenever it recedes.
But these are extremely basic services, and these are far from extravagant asks.
Our libraries are physically closed right now, but online, they continue to connect thousands of patrons with services. At a time when school systems across Oregon are scrambling to figure out a "distance learning" model that they can use for the rest of a school year that likely won't resume in person — and in the worst case, a 2020-21 school year that could be disrupted by the coronavirus, too — our Washington County libraries provide a wealth of online resources, including homework help.
At some point, our libraries will re-open. That's a fact. And when they do, they will be all the more vital, providing books, computer access, educational programs, music, movies, activities and lectures at no cost for anyone with a library card.
As many of us reel from a loss of income, our library system is now, and will continue to be, a source of education and entertainment for which no one has to pay out of pocket — so long as we make sure to return the materials we borrow on time.
If anything, the case to renew the public safety levy is even simpler to make.
Sheriff's deputies are among the first responders who put their lives on the line — all the time, and especially now when a contagion is floating around. Many of us have the luxury of being able to do our jobs from home, if we're working. But there's no responding to emergencies via Zoom. The Washington County Sheriff's Office, like law enforcement and EMS agencies across the country, continues to answer the bell day after day even under difficult, dangerous circumstances.
The public safety levy helps pay for beds at the Washington County Jail, as well as community corrections and juvenile services, which provide alternatives to jail cells for minor and underage offenders. It also provides substantial funding for the Sheriff's Office to deal with domestic violence and child abuse, issues that are on the rise as people are stuck at home — in some cases, with partners or guardians who are abusive or neglectful.
If the library levy isn't renewed, Washington County Cooperative Library Services will lose about 40% of its funding when the existing five-year levy expires next summer. That would be a doomsday scenario for the library system. Some, if not all, libraries would be forced to cut hours or days. The digital services that people continue to enjoy during our "Stay Home, Stay Healthy" mass quarantine could be reduced dramatically, since they cost the library system money to provide. Library programming would shrink. Layoffs are a distinct possibility. In sum, one of Washington County's greatest resources would be severely diminished.
If the public safety levy isn't renewed, the Sheriff's Office forecasts many more forced releases due to limited jail capacity. There would be fewer detectives available to investigate child abuse. Even cities with their own police departments could suffer, as there would be fewer deputies available to transport suspects to the jail, meaning police officers in places like Tigard and Forest Grove — where the force is already stretched thin — would have to leave their cities more often to take people to Hillsboro. While the public safety levy doesn't account for quite as dramatic a proportion of the Sheriff's Office budget as the library levy for WCCLS, it's nonetheless sizable, making up about one-sixth of its annual revenue.
Yes, this is a difficult time to fill in the bubble and approve a property tax measure. And for many voters, these measures will share space with other money measures, including Metro's homeless services tax on top earners and large businesses. We understand the apprehension that voters may feel.
But we encourage you to take the long view. This has already been a very trying year, and there will be more of that to come. But these measures won't take effect until midway through 2021. When they do, they will be providing stable funding for services that benefit hundreds of thousands of people and touch virtually every household in Washington County.
Vote "yes" on Measures 34-296 and 34-297.
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