It was so predictable. Four years ago, the Deschutes County Board of Commissioners reduced the county's tax rate, arguing that we had plenty in reserves. As we can see today, there was not plenty in reserves, but it played really well to a voter base that would relish seeing politicians go to bat to "lower our taxes." The reduction, mind you, was negligible to the average taxpayer, with a reduction of 6 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.
But that reduction is now having significant effects that were entirely foreseeable: County reserves are declining at a time when the County needs to expand services. Case in point: the county courthouse needs to expand to accommodate a growing population, and that's just to start.
When Commissioner Phil Chang proposed raising the tax rate again this past week, his proposal failed in a 3-3 split vote among the members of the Deschutes County Budget Committee. Commissioner Patti Adair voted in favor of the increase; Commissioner Tony DeBone voted no. Another negligible increase for the sheriff's office's rural law enforcement district did get the budget committee's approval, resulting in an increase of 9 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.
Even had the proposal succeeded, county officials say there will come a time soon when Deschutes County can no longer pay for big projects, like it did for the Stabilization Center, with money it already has. Instead, taxpayers are now facing a future in which they'd need to accrue debt to cover these types of projects.
Not long ago, the County charged the City of Bend $1 million for a piece of land that the City wanted to use for an affordable housing project. When asked why the County didn't gift the land to the City rather than forcing it to tap into its Affordable Housing Fund to pay for it, one commissioner admitted that they'd need the money to pay for the expanded courthouse. As Bend continues to bleed its lower-paid service workers who can no longer afford to live here, keep these connections in mind. Paying slightly more in property taxes may be an annoyance to some, but on the other end, it may mean one less worker waiting to fill that job you so desperately need to fill.
Some short-sighted residents who adhere to the "drown government in the bathtub" mantra will look at the current situation and say "thank you" to the commissioners who lowered their taxes and then voted in favor of keeping it that way. Others may use this as an opportunity to blame the new residents and Californians who may end up forcing them to pay higher taxes to cover the growing needs of a growing county. Like it or not, in a growing community where people expect services, we're all going to pay. We could pay now through a small sum added back to our property taxes, or we'll pay in the future when the county needs to use its property tax dollars to pay down debt—which will most likely come with interest.
It's all connected, and we're going to pay for it. We expect better fiscal foresight for Deschutes County residents.