Jail levy could be reduced

The owner of a home assessed at the median value could save about $60 over two years

Lane County’s budget committee moved Thursday to reduce the property tax levy for the county jail by slightly more than 30 percent — a cut that could save the owner of a median-assessed Lane County home about $60 during the next two years. 

The budget committee opted to cut the tax rate to 38 cents from 55 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. County staff had given the committee, made up of the five county commissioners and five residents, a range of options for the last two years of the 2013 five-year levy: from cutting the tax rate to as low as 30 cents per $1,000 to keeping the current rate.

The committee will take a final vote on the preferred option next Thursday, after a public comment period.

The sheriff’s office said it could keep the same number of locally funded jail beds, 317, open during the final two years of the levy, regardless of what option the budget committee chose. That’s well above the minimum of 255 local beds — paid for through a mix of the levy and other county government money — that were promised to voters before the levy passed. 

Essentially, the budget committee’s choice came down to how much in reserves the county wants to have at the end of the levy’s five-year term.

The money collected by the levy is tightly controlled; it’s kept in a restricted fund and can’t be spent on non-jail expenses. The money pays for sheriff’s deputies, other staff and expenses to maintain the beds. But any money collected and unspent in the levy’s five-year term can be rolled over to cover jail expenses in future years.

Because of slow hiring and better-than-anticipated jail levy revenues, the jail levy fund will have built up a significant reserve of $23 million by June 30. With the current tax rate, those reserves would reach $31.5 million by the levy’s expiration in mid-2018.

Under the committee’s preferred option, however, the levy supported fund would spend more than it brings in over the next two years. But the fund still would be projected to end with a balance of $19.5 million — enough to maintain current staffing and bed levels for 20 months if the levy is not renewed by voters.

The levy also pays for 16 youth detention and drug and alcohol treatment beds. 

To ensure a similar 20-month cushion for those beds, the committee proposed to increase the youth services’ share of the tax rate to 8 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value from 5 cents per $1,000.

Commissioner Jay Bozievich said that he thought reducing the tax rate all the way to 30 cents “is cutting it a little close.”

And he proposed increasing the share of the levy going to youth services. “I think it’s important we end up with the same share of reserves” for both the jail and youth detention, Bozievich said.

Some committee members, including Commissioner Pat Farr, questioned whether increasing youth services’ share would amount to changing what had been promised to voters.

“If there’s any question about the integrity of how we handled this money, the voters aren’t going to renew” the levy, he said.

But Commissioner Sid Leiken said the tweak was to ensure “consistent” jail and youth services to Lane County residents. “At the end of the day, we’re still cutting their tax by 30 percent,” he said. “That’s a pretty darn good story to be telling the public.”

Commissioner Pete Sorenson and budget committee Chairman Denis Hijmans both said they would prefer a smaller tax reduction.

Hijmans said that maintaining the already accumulated reserve would allow the county to prepare for “unforeseen circumstances.”

Sorenson, meanwhile, urged the board to be “cautious” about the 30 percent tax cut. “We’re talking about other revenue (generating) ideas, at the same time as we’re telling citizens we don’t need this tax revenue,” he said. 

The unexpected tax cut could help bolster voter support for renewing the levy in the near future. The county must ask voters by May 2018 at the latest to renew it, if officials want to avoid any interruption in funding.

The county is more reliant than ever on the levy to fund the jail. Up until mid-2015, the county paid for 150 beds from its general fund and other regular revenues, and 131 beds from the jail levy. Regular county funds now pay for 85 beds, with 237 beds covered by the levy.

In the next county budget, officials again are proposing to cut the number of beds covered by regular funds to 75, with only five beds paid for directly from the county’s general fund. That shift will free slightly more than $400,000 in the general fund.

County officials propose to spend that money on three jail mental health specialists and a psychologist position, a jail parole officer, jail shower repairs and the sheriff work crew.

Follow Saul on Twitter @SaulAHubbard . Email saul.hubbard@registerguard.com

Source: http://projects.registerguard.com/rg/news/local/34363387-75/lane-county-weighs-cutting-jail-levy-tax-by-up-to-half.html.csp

Reagan Knopp