What Happens when Governments Go Broke?Posted: February 25, 2014
Josephine County isn’t a monster, it’s just ahead of the curve
J Ciaramella writes: On the evening of Oct. 30, 2013, a car traveling down a highway south of Cave Junction struck and killed Jarred Houston, 21, and Robert Calvin, 41. Four months later, their case remains unsolved.
A week after the hit-and-run, Aaron Clouser, 39, was stabbed to death and left in the middle of the street. His case remains unsolved as well.
“Who else is going to protect you when your government can’t?”
The murders have left the small town seething with anger, but there are barely any detectives around to work the cases.
Economic woes have forced county governments in rural Oregon to slash law enforcement budgets to the point where police are almost non-existent. In Josephine County, where Cave Junction is, there are two patrol deputies tasked with covering 1,600 square miles.
The sheriff’s office issued a warning last year for those in “potentially volatile” situations, such as those protected under a restraining order, “to consider relocating to an area with adequate law enforcement services.”
The Oregon State Police have shifted resources to the area to try and fill in the gaps. Some citizens have banded together into armed watch groups.
The rural areas in southern Oregon are lawless.
When the money runs out
I first heard of Houston and Calvin’s case in state representative Wally Hicks’ office in Salem.
I was talking to Hicks’ legislative assistant about what to cover while I was in town.
“Here, you should check out these constituent letters,” she said, handing me a manila folder with a stack of letters from Cave Junction residents about Jarred Houston.
The letters—from cousins, nephews, brothers, and friends who felt like brothers to Houston—described a big-hearted guy nicknamed “Boo-Boo” who enjoyed the outdoors, wanted to coach high school wrestling, and planned on enlisting in the Marine Corps.
One letter was from a 10 year old: “The last talk I had with him, Jared said, ‘Are you wrestling?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘I am probably going to be your coach.’ I said, ‘YES, that is awesome.’”
The letters also described a place spinning out of control. “They think this county is lawless so people do what they please.”
Josephine County hit a series of economic roadblocks: The bottom fell out of the local timber industry; the federal government cut its long-standing subsidies to the region; and there was no tax base to fill in the gaps.
“The statistic I’ve heard is that there were 22 lumber mills in Josephine and Jackson County in 1990,” Hicks said. “Today there are zero.”
The sole remaining lumber mill in Josephine County closed last year.
For decades, county coffers were filled with money from federal payouts under the Oregon and California Railroad Act of 1937, commonly referred to as the O&C Act. Under the O&C, the government paid 18 Oregon counties portions of timber revenues on federal lands. Seventy percent of the land in Josephine County is owned by the federal government.
During the 1980s, loggers were cutting more than two square miles per week of old-growth forest in Oregon. There was an 11-year period where no property taxes at all were collected for county services, because O&C revenues covered the costs.
The decline started during the timber wars of the 1990s, but even then, the O&C counties averaged $70 million a year in federal payments.
Due to reduced timber yields, the payments were switched to direct subsidies in the 2000s, and then the housing market collapsed in 2008.
The housing market bust and recession rippled through Oregon especially hard. I saw the results firsthand: My mom worked for a lumber broker that had no prospective buyers or sellers, and my dad worked for a tugboat company that no longer had any barges of lumber to tug.
O&C payments were phased out entirely in 2012. When the feds terminated the payouts, the county floated a tax levy to cover a budget shortfall of $7.5 million. Voters rejected it.
Crime—especially petty thefts and burglaries—has spiked since the levy was shot down…
- Josephine County Says No to Dispensaries (kdrv.com)
- Even in Oregon’s Josephine County, there’s an urban-rural split (oregonlive.com)
- Rough & Ready Lumber, the last sawmill in Josephine County, set to close (photos) (photos.oregonlive.com)
- Curry, Josephine counties need Legislature’s help (oregonlive.com)
- Another armed citizen group starts patrolling Josephine County (oregonlive.com)
- Cave Junction hit-and-run victims identified (oregonlive.com)
- Redwood National Forest (robinandmort.wordpress.com)
- Police: Oregon hit-run victims were fighting when hit (blogs.seattletimes.com)
- Fugitive wanted on drug allegations arrested in Cave Junction (oregonlive.com)