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Residents of urban unincorporated Washington County need access to the same level of policing as city residents.

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COURTESY PHOTO: WASHINGTON COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE - This map shows the service area of the Enhanced Sheriff Patrol District, which is funded by a levy that's before voters on May 17.In the late 1980s, voters in urban unincorporated areas of Washington County agreed: It's a fair trade to pay a little more in property taxes to receive a comparable level of service from law enforcement as residents of cities do.

Washington County has the largest population of any county in Oregon that lives outside of city limits. More than one-third of the over 600,000 county residents live in neither Hillsboro, Beaverton, Tigard, Forest Grove, Tualatin, Sherwood, North Plains, Banks, Gaston, nor the little pieces of Portland, Lake Oswego and Wilsonville that jut into Washington County.

In the long term, we have our doubts as to whether that is sustainable. The county collects considerably less per household in property taxes than do cities, leaving it with less money to put into public services and improvements. The county commission's attention is divided, and it cannot hyper-focus on a specific community the way a city council does by nature.

Over time, like Aloha has in relation to Hillsboro and Beaverton, even newer, wealthier unincorporated communities like Bethany will fall behind their incorporated neighbors. Their infrastructure will age at the same rate but take longer to be upgraded or replaced. Services will be stretched too thin and won't be as readily bolstered. Local concerns will be likelier to languish.

But that's not what's on the ballot this year.

In the long term, it will be up to local residents to decide how to organize their communities — whether that means the status quo, whether that means making an effort to strengthen the county's patchwork of Community Participation Organizations, whether that means petitioning for incorporation. The county should provide whatever support it can, although leaders should recognize the issues with having so much unincorporated urban land.

For now, what is on the ballot is Measure 34-310, which would increase the rate that residents of the so-called Enhanced Sheriff's Patrol District — a non-contiguous district encompassing all of Washington County's urbanized areas that fall outside city limits — are paying for law enforcement services.

The current levy rate is 67 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. That rate would increase by 15 cents under the replacement levy.

If voters don't approve a new levy, the current levy will expire, since under state law, local option levies can't be authorized for more than five years at a time. That, county officials told us, would lead to services being slashed — to the tune of nearly 120 positions at the Sheriff's Office being eliminated. Response times in unincorporated areas would skyrocket. Deputies working in the ESPD would be stretched far thinner than Sheriff Pat Garrett is comfortable seeing.

This is an easy call for us. Voters have supported the ESPD levy for more than 30 years. While high inflation and the economic roller coaster we've been on with the COVID-19 pandemic make this a tough time to approve a tax increase, we should be mindful that these issues affect the Sheriff's Office, too, and that plus big population growth make this relatively modest increase necessary.

We recommend "yes" on Measure 34-310 to maintain law enforcement service levels for people living outside city limits.

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