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Roseburg Oregon a Case Study on What Taxes Pay For

Last Saturday’s NYTimes article by Kirk Johnson described the travails of Roseburg, Oregon, a small town in SW Oregon that has suffered a loss of tax revenues as a result of the outsourcing of lumber, a loss that make Roseburg a case study that illustrates what our taxes pay for. In the article Mr. Johnson describes how successive votes to keep its library open failed, along with votes to pay for 24/7 police services, the ability to incarcerate criminals, and the assessor’s required to collect taxes.

Some background on how Roseburg Oregon found itself in this predicament:

…for many years, timber-harvesting operations on public lands here paid the bills, and people got used to it. A law passed by Congress in the 1930s specified that a vast swath of forest lands that had passed into corporate hands and back into federal control would be managed for county benefit. But then logging declined, starting in the 1980s and 1990s, as it did across many other parts of the West, and the flood of timber money slowed to a trickle, with only a stunted tax base to pick up the difference. The property tax rate in Curry County is less than a quarter of the statewide average. Douglas County (where Roseburg is located) residents pay about 60 percent less than most state residents.

So even though the taxes are relatively low in Douglas County, voters see them as skyrocketing because of a decline in logging, which was the “cash cow” for the government in years past. And, as several interviews in Mr. Johnson’s article indicate, there is a deep and abiding distrust in the government at all levels that manifests itself in negative votes for any government spending at any level. And here’s the result:

So what does life in government retreat look like?

It looks like the house on Hubbard Creek Road in Curry County, where owners went for more than 10 years without paying any property taxes at all because the county assessor’s office couldn’t field enough workers to go out and inspect. The house, nestled in the woods with a tidy blue roof and skylights, dodged more than $8,500 in property taxes that would have gone to support the schools, fire district and sheriff, because government had gotten too small to even ask. So things fall even further, with cuts to agencies that actually bring in revenue prompting further cuts down the line.

Those who distrust government and starve it of funding set a death spiral in motion, a death spiral that eliminates the opportunity for children in their community to get a good education, that eliminates community-funded fire and police protection, and eliminates all kinds of government funded “frills” like public libraries. And in its place, those who favor small government can hire private tutors and/or send their children to private schools with public subsidies in the form of vouchers, can band together with neighbors to secure private police and fire protection, and use the fast lane of their internet to secure whatever reading materials they desire. The poor neighbors or those who are thrown into poverty because they can’t pay their medical bills or whose homes burn down because they can’t afford to pitch in for the fire can fend for themselves. Welcome to a world with low taxes and limited service… the world it appears some people in SW Oregon want to live in.

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