Deschutes County wants voters to reauthorize the 911 district's temporary local option property tax of 23 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation. Its campaign message is simple: It's what you pay now, and if we don't get it, we'll have to reduce our services and require public safety agencies to take up the slack.
That's not good enough. After carrying surpluses for years, the 911 district has a contingency fund of $9.74 million and an equipment reserve fund of over $2 million. With that kind of cash on hand, a taxing district with a $7.5 million annual budget must justify every cent it requests.
The district has a permanent 16-cent levy. In 2008 voters approved its request for a five-year 23-cent levy, 7 cents of which was earmarked to build a new 911 center. Last May voters rejected its request to make that temporary tax permanent by establishing a new taxing district with a 39-cent levy.
With the temporary tax expiring, the county is asking voters to continue paying the 23-cent temporary tax for five years—or until it mounts another campaign for that permanent 39-cent tax rate.
Asked why 23 cents is the right request, Deschutes County Commissioner Tony DeBone was frank.
"One function is to keep it simple—23 cents per thousand dollars keeps taxes the same," DeBone told the Source.
Simplicity does not equal justification.
Rob Poirier, director of the 911 district, told the Source the district's reserves are needed for operating expenses, new equipment and capital projects.
He said the reserves have built up in part because the district has had lengthy periods of understaffing owing to the high turnover endemic to the stressful field.
Poirier also said he has held off on undertaking capital projects with the reserve money because the reserves might be needed if the district's total levy drops to 16 cents.
He added that he has delayed equipment purchases because existing equipment has performed satisfactorily beyond projections—but needs replacing soon.
Besides, he said, the district can always collect less than the total levy amount authorized by voters, as the sheriff's office does.
Saying you might not need it all does not equal justification.
We agree the 911 district must be fully funded in order to do its vital work, but overfunded is another story. Poirier is to be commended for resisting the bureaucratic reflex to spend to one's authorization limit out of fear of seeing it lowered, but the district does appear to be asking for more than it actually requires with this additional 23-cent temporary levy.
If that image is deceptive, the county must prove it before the May 21 election. We're giving the county and the 911 district the boot (gently) toward taking a good hard look at whether this request is fair to the taxpayers of the district.