JOHN DAY - Municipal officials from across the region voiced frustration with what they see as continuing erosion of local control over community services and public spending decisions.
The officials gathered at the Grant County Regional Airport on Sept. 14, hosted by the City of John Day as part of City Hall Week. The event, part of the annual observance promoted by the League of Oregon Cities, drew about 30 participants from communities as far away as Maupin and Rufus, along with representatives of Grant County cities John Day, Seneca, Prairie City, Granite and Dayville.
Joining John Day Mayor Bob Quinton at the front table were state Rep. Cliff Bentz (R-Ontario), state Sen. Ted Ferrioli (R-John Day), state Rep. John Huffman (R-The Dalles) and Will Boettner, a Fossil Democrat who is challenging Huffman in House District 59 in the November general election.
The agenda touched on several actions the League will push during the next Oregon Legislature. They include:
? Asking legislators to refer a measure to voters to give local governments more flexibility with voter-approved operating levies, in effect loosening some of the restrictions imposed by Measures 50 and 5. They say the restrictions keep local residents from deciding their own levels of police, fire, road and other city services.
? Seeking repeal the law adopted in 2003 that requires 70 percent of revenues from motel taxes to be used to promote tourism and related facilities. Cities want to be able to decide on how to use that money; some argue that lodging taxes should help pay for law enforcement, street repairs and other costs that they say are increased by tourism.
? Ensuring that the state continues its commitment to revenue sharing, in which the state distributes cigarette, liquor, and 9-1-1 tax money to local governments to help them pay for essential services: public safety, economic development, parks and senior programs.
If legislators approve new taxes or surcharges, the cities want to make sure the revenue is included in the current formula for disbursement.
? Protecting municipal water rights in the face of pressure by special interest and environmental groups to limit water use by cities.
Overall, city officials noted a decline in options, especially regarding revenue generation.
"We realize revenues are scarce and getting harder to get," said Ferrioli. He noted that every session, the LOC raises the question of how to create a "work around" for the Measures 50 and 5 property tax limitations.
However, he noted that both measures were citizen initiatives, and they still seem to have strong support from the people.
"I think the voters spoke pretty loudly in the '90s on these two issues," he said.
Boettner took a different perspective, noting that as a city councilor, local control is the issue.
He said tax compression and other restrictions mean that cities have a difficult time responding to the needs of the community "on the ground, in our towns."
Ferrioli noted that local-option levies tend to get strong support, allowing communities to build and pay for specific projects.
"If you bring the issue down to, 'Are we going to have a fire department in the city, are we going to have a police force, or mental health services ... the answer is going to be yes," he said. But he said that granting a broader taxing authority is a tougher sell.
Boettner said a reasonable action for the Legislature might be to refer the issue to the voters.
"We're all opposed to more taxes, but we also want services," he said.
Bentz cautioned that local control is a complex issue, and can have unexpected consequences. For example, he said, if a big municipality like Portland adopts a local fire or school levy, it could cut into the amount of state money available to the rural areas.
Huffman said the problem really hinges on local money, not just local control, adding "we're discussing the symptoms."
He said we could be cutting timber and managing our natural resources in a balanced way, "and we're not doing it in this state."
"I drove past a lot of money on my way to John Day today," he said.