Cars pass underneath an arch in Josephine County, Oregon, that shows a city slogan: "It's the climate." Credit: Timothy J. Gonzalez for Reveal

A controversial effort in rural Oregon to boost public safety services has failed. For the fifth time in a row.

Since 2012, residents of Josephine County repeatedly have rejected a tax increase that would help fund their bare-bones sheriff’s office. The 1,600-square-mile county, which has made national headlines for its staunch antigovernment posture, enjoys one of the lowest property tax rates in Oregon: about 59 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value.

This year’s proposed levy, an increase to $1.42, was voted down Tuesday by a wide margin. It would have paid for “enhanced law enforcement purposes” – more patrol deputies, improved probation services and additional resources for juvenile justice. The tax also would have added beds to the Josephine County jail, which critics have dubbed a revolving door that allows criminals to re-enter the community without consequences.

One such criminal, Brian Killian, has been charged with committing a double slaying last year just months after being released for lack of sufficient jail funding. He goes to trial this spring.

Without the levy, local law enforcement officials are scrambling for a new source of revenue for next year.

“Worst-case scenario, we close everything,” said Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel. “I can maybe sustain for another year” with the money currently available, he added. “That’s a maybe.”

Despite voters’ continued insistence on lowering taxes, Josephine County for years has been a beneficiary of government subsidies. Beginning in the 1990s, a drop in timber revenue put the county and dozens of others across the country in fiscal trouble. In response, the federal government passed the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act in 2000, which initiated a system of payments for areas affected by timber’s decline.

When these payments stalled in 2012, Josephine County’s law enforcement services were cut back dramatically. Officials released dozens of inmates from the jail; criminal investigations by Oregon State Police in the county shot up 600 percent in one month; and between 2012 and 2016, crimes reported in the county increased an average of 50 percent every year.

To make matters worse, the federal act now has expired, and experts fear there’s little hope of reauthorizing it, despite a bipartisan plea from Senate lawmakers last April.

“The short story is that counties will be missing payments this year,” Mark Haggerty, a policy analyst at Headwaters Economics, wrote in an email. “Conversations about what to do next are up in the air after last night.”   

Josh Balloch, Josephine County’s lead organizer in favor of the tax increase, said the burden of fixing the community’s crime problem now should fall on the shoulders of residents who voted no.

“Those people now have a responsibility to come up with a solution,” he said. “This is real. This is not a game. There are people who are continuing to get hurt.”

Byard Duncan can be reached at bduncan@cironline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ByardDuncan.

Byard Duncan is a reporter and producer for  engagement and collaborations for Reveal. He manages Reveal’s Reporting Networks, which provide more than 1,000 local journalists across the U.S. with resources and training to continue Reveal investigations in their communities. He also helps lead audience engagement initiatives around Reveal’s stories and assists local reporters in elevating their work to a national platform. In addition to Reveal, Duncan’s work has appeared in GQ, Esquire, The California Sunday Magazine and Columbia Journalism Review, among other outlets. He was part of Reveal’s Behind the Smiles project team, which was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2019. He is the recipient of two Edward R. Murrow Awards, a National Headliner Award, an Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, and two first-place awards for feature storytelling from the Society of Professional Journalists and Best of the West. Duncan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.