Lane County: What we have here is a failure to communicate.

By Curtis Haley of Eugene, Oregon. Curtis describes himself as "an incoming freshman at University of Oregon, former national president of DECA (student organization of 185,000 members), and an ardent Democrat."

I bothered to vote last week, but only because it's still new to me (I haven't had the chance to become terribly disenchanted yet) and because it's hard to tell others to do it when you don't bother to go to the polls yourself.

That said, the only measure on the Lane County ballot I really cared about got absolutely annihilated, 71% to 29% with 44% turnout, to nobody's surprise. Measure 20-129 would have enacted Lane County's first income tax (it's now been defeated by voters 13 times) to help fund public safety, which will be gutted if the federal government doesn't decide to renew the payments it's made for several decades to make up for the protected timber land that can't be harvested, sold and, by extension, taxed. (HINT: It's being lumped in with the war funding/withdrawal bill. Good luck).

While it's normally next-to-impossible to get any new taxes approved in this county (and yes, I have been politically aware enough in my short political life to at least absorb this little fact), the measure was hindered even more by the short time between the time the county commissioners approved the tax, the petition for a referendum was submitted, and the time of the election itself.

Even those I talked to who might ordinarily have voted for the tax with a little prodding told me that they heard/knew next-to-nothing about what the measure was about. The anti-tax zealots at the oh-so-subtly-named "WE SAID NO" PAC framed it as fatcat county commissioners lining their totalitarian pockets with hard-earned taxpayer dollars, laughing condescendingly all-the-while that the peasants of Lane County would have to fund it all through the evil income tax they had fought so valiantly against in November (that the first tax would've been for additional funding for public services, and that this would've provided for the CURRENT level of funding for public safety is conveniently left out of their arguments.)

Anyone needing further proof of the information gap need look no further than the next measure on the ballot, 20-130, which would've put a 2% cap on the income tax itself. Though only 24,000 people voted FOR the tax, somehow 35,000 people voted AGAINST a cap on the same tax. Magically, at least 11,000 people (and realistically, a lot more) that voted against the tax suddenly felt that, if there was a tax, those mean ol' county commissioners should feel free to set it at whatever rate they saw fit. (See the election results yourself.)

The lesson? When even the ones who are fighting for adequate funding don't have adequate information (case in point: I learned, after voting, that the tax would've accounted for inflation on ALL county services for ten years, if passed), the echo chamber becomes even harder to be heard in. Of course, if and when the funding for public safety services evaporates in a few months, the moans and groans will no doubt come back to the same county commissioners, who will at that point "be failing to provide for the people".

But then again, maybe all these years of watching politics have just made me cynical.

  • JohnH (unverified)

    Eugene and Lane County have a long and sorry history with "public safety" tax measures. Although I regularly vote for tax measures, I vote against the "public safety" ones.

    My opinion started to be formed ten years ago when Eugene police maced protesters sitting in stately, old trees to protest tearing them down to make way for housing downtown. Luckily for the police, no one got disoriented and seriously hurt falling out of the trees. The police conduct resulted in an investigation and calls for a civilian review board, but nothing really changed. Strike One.

    Next up came a county tax measure to finish the juvenile detention center and address the "alarming rise" in juvenile crime. Much to my amazement, the county's case was entirely fictious: juvenile crime had been dropping for more than a decade. The category of crime that was rising most rapidly? "Life style" crime --loitering on 13th Avenue. For this we needed more police officers? Strike two.

    Then there was the sad saga of drug enforcement, where police were funding drug operations from seizure and sale of people's assets after charging them with drug crimes. No conviction necessary to dispossess people. Strike three. Fortunately, voters passed a measure to end this abominable practice. Though the police predicted dire consequences, the impact on public safety has been imperceptible.

    Next up were the Lara and Magana scandals, where two Eugene police officers were convicted for abusing their privileged position to force sex from women. Turns out the police had overlooked some background information when they hired these guys. And when reports of their misdeeds started to come in, superiors turned a blind eye to victims' complaints. Lara and Magana went to jail, but the Eugene lost millions in law suits. The police studied the situation thoroughly and concluded that they had done wrong! Strike four.

    As for the latest tax measure, I took the rare step of being neutral--I didn't vote. On the one hand, the county probably needs some more money. On the other hand, crime rates continue to drop, calling the urgency for additional police funding into question, much to the despair of local officials. Also, the county refuses to make some cost cutting decisions, like what to do with the county fair, which loses half a million dollars every year. Even the tax measure itself was suspicious: though billed as progressive, it was actually flat. And the county's ability to collect from business was suspect, given the fact that out of county revenues were excluded. Accountants for companies of all stripes would have had a field day shifting expenses to Lane County to increase profits elsewhere and reduce income taxes here.

    Apart from any transparency regarding business taxes, there was no failure to communicate. A similar "public safety" income tax went down last November. Then commissioners enacted it by themselves, creating a big brouhaha and resulting in a second ballot measure. People who chose to vote knew what they were voting on.

    The failures reside with the reputation of the police, their ability to police themselves and with some public officials' historic inability to be forthright, honest and transparent with voters.

  • JohnH (unverified)

    Correction: end of paragraph 5. The police studied the situation thoroughly and concluded that they had done NOTHING wrong!

  • Larry (unverified)

    Public safety tax measures are kinda like public safety charities.

    When the phone-bank caller interupts your next dinner, ask the person how much money that you are being asked to donate actually goes to the public safety group (police, sheriff, fire dept, etc), and they will say that about 20% is left after administration costs (marketing costs, advertizing costs, paying the sales commissions of the guy/gal on the other end of the phone).

    Just say no.... anything else just encourages this poor behavior.

  • josh (unverified)

    Then you look across the freeway at Springfield and they pass public safety taxes. More officer's, new jail, more fire fighters. Could it be leadership?

  • PID (unverified)
    Though only 24,000 people voted FOR the tax, somehow 35,000 people voted AGAINST a cap on the same tax. Magically, at least 11,000 people (and realistically, a lot more) that voted against the tax suddenly felt that, if there was a tax, those mean ol' county commissioners should feel free to set it at whatever rate they saw fit.

    Not necessarily. The cap measure also requires that any income tax be dedicated to public safety programs. As JohnH's comment shows, at least some of the people who voted no on the tax objected because it would go to public safety, not necessarily because they object to new taxes in general. These people might also vote against a cap measure that prevents the county from ever enacting an income tax to fund other programs.

  • (Show?)

    Let's be realistic here: The measure got 28%, just about the same as every sales tax measure that's been on the ballot in Oregon. It is unlikely that any amount of communicating, or any fine-tuning of the measure, would have changed the result.

    The reason the similar measure that was on the ballot last November nearly passed in Lane County is that the income tax had already been enacted and people were just asked to vote on the cap (although the fine print said that if the cap didn't pass, the tax would be nullified). Enough people were almost tricked into passing it.

    Don't get me wrong--I voted for both taxes because, with the imminent loss of timber money, Lane County desperately needs the money. But I am not optimistic about people taxing themselves to replace this revenue.

    If we got to vote on health insurance premiums, I'm sure we would have very cheap health insurance that covered very few of our needs. If we got to vote on gas prices we'd probably have very cheap, very scarce gasoline.

    The advantage of the market is that the price is tied to the purchase--you either pay the price or you don't get the product. In the political marketplace, we kid ourselves into thinking we can disconnect the price from the product. For local governments, who can't just print the money they need to operate, this gives us the situation Oregon's timber counties are in today.

  • Curtis (unverified)

    Thanks for the comments - I really appreciate the sentiments, both ways. It wasn't a perfect measure by any means, but I still feel that the election was more representative of a lack of discussion and debate than about how people feel about taxes or public safety in general.

    I will say that I disagree with JohnH. I'm too young to have a great recollection of the police brutality, campus riots, etc., I'll admit, but the public safety tax would've gone to a lot of drug treatment and recovery programs that are a doubtless plus, in addition to law enforcement.

    I'm sure we'll see something else in November to be plenty pessimistic about in any case.

  • Byard Pidgeon (unverified)

    There was plenty of information...much of it misleading, from both major organizations on each side. I think a major reason for the defeat of the tax was the incredibly unpolitic arrogance of the county commission, in instituting a tax the voters had just rejected. It's remeniscent of the "death with dignity" measure, that we had to approve twice, by increasing majority...people don't like having something jammed down their throats (or up the other way, for that matter). My personal reason for voting NO (besides the above), perhaps shared by others who haven't was a flat tax, to my mind a "camel's nose in the tent" effort by a couple of conservatives who have been trying for years to enact a flat tax statewide. I'm sure they'll be back, with more dire predictions and less than honest proposals.

  • Joe (unverified)

    I agree with Byard. I don't know what is wrong with oregon lately but it seems that more our leaders are ignoring the will of the people. I think the biggest betrayal of this latest tax measure is that while the whole time screaming about how they were going to have to cut 250 jobs; they managed to keep secret until days after the vote, that they were giving everyone a raise and increasing the maximum amount a county worker can earn by $20,000 a year! I admit to not really knowing what to do about the 2% cap measure. I remember thinking that if it passed the county might decide to take it to mean that the county just voted to enact a 2% tax, and if it failed they might decide that means we actually want a larger tax.

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