Voters overwhelmingly approved a renewal of Benton County's public safety and health local option property tax levy for the sixth time.
Measure 2-130 on Tuesday’s ballot passed 71.96% to 28.04% in updated returns. In 2017 a similar levy won with 69.69% of the vote. In 2012 the tax measure won with 65.01%.
Voter turnout in Benton County was 39.2%.
“It is incredibly valuable to have such strong support from the community for the work that we do,” said John Haroldson, the county district attorney, at a victory party at Common Fields in Corvallis. The levy supports a wide range of services that benefit his office.
“This is really a blessing,” said Jef Van Arsdall, the new county sheriff. “I’m really pleased to have the support of the community. It’s overwhelming and allows us to move forward.”
The levy’s passage means Van Arsdall will continue to have 24/7 patrol capability and extra jail beds.
“The people of Benton County care about the well-being of the community, they care about public health and public safety,” said Curtis Wright, the ballot measure campaign chair.
The levy will raise $11 million per year over five years for a wide range of services (see information box).
The levy will charge property owners 90 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, which translates to $360 per year for property assessed at $400,000. The rate has remained the same from previous levies, which Benton County officials said have been necessary because of property tax limitations imposed by state initiative measures dating back to the early 1990s.
The county levy renewal comes amid a time of numerous similar money measures. The Corvallis School District also has a levy in progress, and voters passed a $200 million school facilities bond in 2018. County voters passed a new taxing district for 911 emergency dispatch service in 2019. Corvallis, meanwhile, has its own levy in place and increased its city services bill to pay for more police and fire staffers.
Tuesday’s vote seems to indicate there is no levy fatigue, at least not in May 2021.
A new jail?
Benton County officials are hoping that voter goodwill continues into May of 2022, when a new justice system improvement plan likely will be on the ballot, with the key item being a new jail. Measures to replace the jail have not fared as well as the county’s levy. Jail bonds have been turned down repeatedly, most recently in 2015, when a $25 million plan that would have placed the new jail in Philomath was defeated.
“It’s important for people to understand that it is not so much about a jail, it’s about programs to keep people out of jail,” said Wright of the upcoming measure. “The programs will help those who have served their time so they won’t go back again.”
“We need to be very cautious and plan this one well,” said Benton County Commissioner Nancy Wyse. “It’s a whole new ballgame.”
When asked about the county’s success with levies and its challenges with jail bonds, Commissioner Xan Augerot pointed to the need for doing effective community outreach.
“We have to explain to people what we want to do and why,” she said, noting that “the school district did that very well” when it was promoting its facilities bond.
The new county proposal, which still is being refined, likely would cost in the $90 million to $100 million range, according to Nick Kurth, the project coordinator for the county's justice system plan.
The mix of possible facilities in the 2022 bond includes a new 120-bed jail (the current version has 40), a crisis response center, a new courthouse and restoration of the old one, offices for the district attorney and a new law enforcement building to house the Benton County Sheriff’s Office, the Corvallis Police Department and the 911 emergency dispatch center. It is extremely unlikely that all of the above facilities will make it to the ballot.
Kurth is looking at three sites, one in west Corvallis, one in South Corvallis and one downtown. The project team has added the westside site and eliminated a northside site near HP Inc. since the plan was introduced to the Corvallis City Council in February.
“It’s not just about facilities,” said Kurth in a meeting with the Gazette-Times editorial board. “It’s about programs. We’re looking at the entire justice system, which is a big undertaking.”
There currently is a link between Measure 2-130 and the upcoming justice system bond. The crisis response center paid for by the levy would exist on an interim basis for the first 12 to 18 months, said Kurth, with bond funds likely providing the bricks and mortar.
If the jail bond doesn’t pass. the county will have some tweaking to do.
Kurth said the summer months will be used to refine the justice system plan, test it with the public and refine it again.