Defunding government is a sensible voter solution to reining in local government
By Dave Duffy
Issue #128 • March/April, 2011
Like so many other communities across the country, my community of Curry County on the southern Oregon coast has rejected efforts by local government to raise taxes in order to fund itself. The latest rejection came in the form of a 3 to 1 thumping of the Law Enforcement Tax Levy, which was to fund the sheriff’s office and criminal justice bureaucracy. The resounding thumbs down came in spite of an intense public relations campaign and editorial support from local newspapers, and despite dire predictions that failure to pass the new tax would mean a sharp curtailment in police protection for citizens and the potential bankruptcy of county government.
Immediately upon defeat of the measure, one of our three county commissioners, who comprise the top political posts locally, was quoted in the newspaper as saying, “The voters let us down!”
I laughed out loud when I read it. It was not a matter of voters letting down county government, but just the opposite. County government, just like state and federal government, has lost the trust of the people. It is inept at best, repressive at worst, and local voters voiced their disapproval by defunding it.
My county is probably like a lot of other rural counties across the country. Most folks here are glad to make $15 an hour, but they have been funding a local government bureaucracy whose workers average, if you include their benefits and pensions, nearly $30 an hour. Not only that, but their pensions increase by 8% a year no matter what the economy or stock market does, thanks to a stipulation in their union contract. It’s just one of the many perks overburdened taxpayers are tired of funding.
I took it upon myself to conduct informal interviews (“sleuth interviews” I call them, since nobody knew they were being interviewed) of several county officials, county workers, and many of my fellow tax-paying citizens to see how they felt about county government in light of the failure of the tax levy.
I got to interview only one other county commissioner, and he told me, “We did a poor job of selling the tax to voters.” He thought a good idea would be to create a new taxing district that would fund the sheriff’s office, and present it to the voters to see if they would pass it. I told him I thought that proposal would get defeated by about 5 to 1.
All three county commissioners, according to the local paper, are considering garnishing money set aside to repair local roads to help fund the sheriff’s office. That may be illegal, however, as some of the money came from the federal government and was designated to fix roads. It would send local voters to new heights of fury if rain-damaged roads went unrepaired because the local bureaucracy “stole the money.”
Several county workers told me they have begun looking for other jobs. It turns out that the county really is facing bankruptcy, although the gavel won’t come down until the end of 2012. That’s when the county will stop receiving federal funds intended to replace revenue from our long-ago-shut-down timber lands. A former county prosecutor told me that a likely scenario is that the county government will be forced to lay off all but a handful of its 225 employees, with those who remain being state-mandated officials, such as one judge, one sheriff, one public defender, and a few others. He said the county may even have to close the county jail and rent out space from a small California city just over the border.
There is no evident planning by county government officials for this predicted scenario. One local lawyer who has frequent business with the county told me, “They never plan for anything around here. It’s full bore ahead like there’s nothing around the corner.”
But probably the most surprising result of my interviews was the bitterness I encountered towards local government by ordinary people. It ranged from the expected resentment of code officials, who residents complained hindered home improvement projects, to accusations that the local police were aggressive and abusive of their position when encountering the public. (I should point out that locals interviewed tended to group all the police together, namely, our several city police departments, the sheriff’s deputies, and the state police. We are very top-heavy in policing agencies here, particularly in Gold Beach, which, as the county seat, has its own police department, is home to the sheriff’s office and courthouse, and has a state police barracks just outside of town.)
You can almost not get through my town of Gold Beach without seeing the flashing lights of a police car next to a motorist, and you can barely drive from town to town (each town is about 27 miles apart) without running the gauntlet of state police cars issuing tickets where the 55 mph zone abruptly turns to a 40 mph zone. It has become an aggressive revenue-raising business, with cops vying with each other to control it. Some county bureaucrats want the city police departments disbanded and enforcement left to the county and state.
One out-of-town couple I ran into at the courthouse said they had planned to move to Gold Beach but now “would never set foot in the town again.” They were paying a fine for “failure to wear a seat belt,” after an offensive cop stopped them while driving from one restaurant to another. “It was all of 50 yards,” the husband said. “It’s absolutely outrageous.” They let me take their photo for this article. (Our local towns, by the way, are essentially tourist economies. Some local businessmen complain that the cops are “collecting tourist scalps” and driving them away.)
The rate at which Gold Beach has ramped up handing out traffic tickets has attracted the attention of a prestigious national motorcycle club, which arranges high-priced touring trips for clients from all over the world. It began rerouting its tourist trips of the West Coast around Gold Beach, and in an online post it warned its members to avoid the area altogether “due to the heavy police presence.”
The Gold Beach police chief, who was a new hire just about the time the economic recession hit, is not phased. He instituted a column in the local newspaper in which he regularly brags about setting local records for the number of citations issued to motorists. He even got the city to allow him to hire a couple more officers so he could issue more tickets. Over the past summer, he boasted, each month saw the issuance of more traffic tickets than the previous one, and the summer itself set a new all-time summer record for issuing traffic citations in Gold Beach.
The local county sheriff has now gotten in on the newspaper column business. His first column, which appeared shortly after the defeat of the tax levy, boasted about all the good policing his deputies were doing. Unfortunately, he made the mistake of boasting about using funds to eradicate marijuana plants in the local forests. That’s not exactly what the public wanted to hear since surveys show 75% of voters believe marijuana eradication is a waste of public funds. When I asked another county official about the column, he said the sheriff needed some PR help, pointing out the more successful efforts of the Gold Beach police chief.
No wonder the sheriff’s levy was defeated by a margin of 3 to 1 and the county is facing impending bankruptcy. The cops and the rest of the bureaucracy just don’t get it! The voters are trying to defund them, but the bureaucracy is bragging in the newspaper how they are spending taxpayer money in ways the voters are fed up with. It’s stunning when you think about the disconnect between the reality of what the voters want and the actions of those in the bureaucracy. It’s the same at the state and national levels.
When it comes to the curtailment of police protection for citizens, several people I interviewed told me they were more afraid of the cops than they were of criminals. Of course, this is a community in which many people keep guns in their homes. One fellow said, “I can handle a criminal breaking into my home by shooting him, but an aggressive cop is a different matter. I can’t do anything, or they’ll take me off to jail.”
Defunding government, especially defunding its police as the voters here essentially did, may be the only way to get through to government and its bureaucracies that it is no longer wanted. It’s a big weapon voters still have. Unlike the federal government, local government can’t just start printing money to fund itself.
My small community of Curry County, and my tiny town of Gold Beach, are the small, local reflections of what American society has become as a whole: a public overwhelmingly dissatisfied with not just a dysfunctional government, but an all too often aggressive, out-of-touch government that works against the interests of ordinary people.
Defunding them locally is the beginning of the solution.