When someone commits suicide, two things happen. Someone dies. Those left behind feel shock and grief. Would those same attributes apply if an entire county died by its own hand? We’re about to find out.
Voters in Oregon’s Curry County seem determined to end life on this planet and set sail for an unknown destination in the afterlife. Try as they might, political, civic and moral leaders in-residence seem powerless to stop the self-induced destruction.
Already faced with the most serious local governmental fiscal hole in the state – following defeat of half a dozen bond issues for this and that – voters have said a loud “NO” to the latest measure – a small tax increase dedicated only to keeping doors open at the county jail. Just for keeping the bad guys locked up.
Bad enough. But it gets worse. Curry has been privileged to have the services of Sheriff John Bishop for many years. As good a professional cop as you’ll find. He’s tried and tried to make his case with voters that his lockup is out of compliance with nearly all legal – if not humane – requirements for keeping prisoners. He’s stacked up enough reasons for a better jail so effectively even voters in neighboring counties have been swayed.
He’s pleaded. He’s begged. He nearly single-handedly forced the latest bond issue before voters. All his labors have ended up in the trash. The latest – a rejection of something so basic to public safety it should be automatic. But it wasn’t even close.
Now, he’s leaving the job. The sheriff’s doctors have told him he’s got to get out from under the load of stress he’s carried for so long or he’ll die years before his time. He’s taken a new job in Salem. But that’s not all. His wife – who’s in charge of county corrections – is leaving, too. They’re both worn out. He and his corrections director wife will be gone before the end of the year.
The newly appointed sheriff – a younger veteran of the department – says the latest voter “shot-to-the-head” leaves him with one choice. He can lock up only the “really, really bad guys” and keep jail doors open ‘til January. Or he can keep taking those arrested and those sentenced by the courts and run out of money in a few weeks. Your call.
Curry County has been on this self-destructive path for several years. All the usual government services – including those required by law – have been cut, cut and cut again. Good people – people you’d want running things anywhere – have bailed out. Staffing in all departments – ALL – is less than minimal. Even 9-1-1 calls are screened for seriousness before anyone responds. And sometimes – they don’t. Bad guys – sometimes really bad guys – have been cycled from arrest to jail to court and back to the street for months.
Oregon has a new law allowing a county to declare bankruptcy and turn to the state for a bailout. A lot of voters in Curry seem to be counting on that. Counting, too, on getting out from under the current – and very deep – debt. They’re about to get a very large surprise.
While the state will be forced to step in, that new law also allows those who take over to make some major decisions. What services will be provided. What won’t. What those services will cost. And who’ll pay the bill. In fact, the state can lay on new “taxes” for certain things. Costs likely to be significantly higher than that old jail bond issue that was junked. The new, temporary help from the State of Oregon will come with a price tag. And with the authority to force payment.
Curry has only five “cities” with some 25,000 souls. More than three-quarters of ‘em live in Brookings, Harbor and Gold Beach – a stretch of Highway 101 of about 24 miles. A small county, yes. But it has a large land area and requires all the services of any other county. Given a long Pacific coastline and weather that wreaks havoc on roads and other public facilities, it also has some serious operating costs. Some of the required maintenance hasn’t been done in a long, long time because of the continued bond issue and county budget rejections. There’s a lot of deferred problems that need prompt attention before the entire infrastructure falls apart.
Curry County’s been “dying-by-a-thousand-cuts.” We lived there. We left. We found an attitude of false self-sufficiency among many people there. Curry may have the largest percentage of over-60 voters in the state. Maybe even over 70. Lots of retired folk. Lots of former government workers. Lots of former military. Fixed income folks.
But there’s something else. The largest population base is the unincorporated community of Harbor across the Chetco River from Brookings. Folks in Harbor have repeatedly refused to incorporate – preferring to leech the “free” services and shopping of the City of Brookings rather than carry their own costs. It’s been ever thus.
That may have to change if the county goes under. State of Oregon administrators charged with reviving the victim may have something to say about this longtime financial abuse of citizenship. Infrastructure costs disproportionally levied on some residents more than others may need to be readjusted some way. Freeloading may have to be ended.
If politics is your bent, watching developments in Curry County, Oregon, may be worth your while for a few months. Several other counties are in precarious financial conditions, too. But Curry seems closer to the edge of the cliff than any of them. Whether Curry jumps or is pushed off that cliff is the question. It got into this suicidal position at the hands of voters. This last “no” vote may have been the killer.