Come the May 2018 primary election, nearly every voter in Umatilla and Morrow counties will have a say in whether or not to support the formation of two new tax districts for Oregon State University Extension Service.
Eleven of the 12 incorporated cities in Umatilla County and all five cities in Morrow County recently passed resolutions forwarding the proposed service districts to the voters, which would tax 33 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to help fund OSU Extension programs.
The only city not to pass a resolution was Umatilla, meaning taxpayers there will not pay for or receive services if the district passes. Officials with OSU Extension will now work with county commissioners to initiate the formation of each district.
“There is a formal process that’s been outlined in statute, and will be done county by county,” said Mary Corp, regional administrator for OSU Extension. “Each county has its own district with its own vote. We’re just working on them at the same time.”
After a whirlwind tour appearing before every city council in both counties, Corp said she is optimistic about the success of the proposed districts, though voters will have final say at the ballot box when the primary election rolls around next May.
On Monday, the Milton-Freewater City Council voted 4-0 to place the district on the ballot, becoming the final city in Umatilla County to do so. Councilors heard from stakeholders about the value of extension service, while trying grasp the impact of a new district on local taxes.
Councilor Brad Humbert said he felt it was fair to let the taxpayers decide.
“I think you have your work cut out for you to get it to pass,” Humbert said.
The city of Umatilla opted not to support the proposed service district for financial reasons, choosing instead to focus the tax dollars it receives on other major utility projects within the city’s urban growth boundary.
City Manager Russ Pelleberg said the decision was not a critique of OSU Extension, but simply a determination of the best use of city money.
“Umatilla is starting to grow, literally,” Pelleberg said. “There’s only so much of that tax money to go around.”
Specifically, Pelleberg said the city was concerned about tax compression, which limits their ability to collect revenue from property taxes. The law, established by Measure 5 in 1990 and later adjusted by Measure 50, sets a cap of $5 for every $1,000 of real market value for education, and $10 per $1,000 for general government.
If the cap is exceeded, a taxpayer’s payment to each entity gets squeezed down in a process known as compression. Pelleberg said the city is already bumping against the cap, and levying an additional tax could impact funding for other projects to support growth and development.
“There are a lot of major projects on the books,” Pelleberg said. “I think the council members ultimately decided any additional taxes that would burden our community should benefit the entire community, not just a portion of it.”
The decision was not unanimous. Councilors Selene Torres-Medrano and Roak TenEyck both voted in favor of sending the district to the voters. Instead, Corp said the city would be excluded from the district boundaries if it passes.
“If they want services from Extension Service in that city, there would be some sort of additional fee associated with it, since they would no longer be providing tax dollars in support of that district,” Corp said.
Heidi Sipe, Umatilla School District superintendent, said the district does partner with OSU Extension Service on after-school and nutrition programs that may be affected.
“If those services are not provided to Umatilla schools, that definitely leaves a gap,” Sipe said.
Sipe said the school district was not consulted by the city prior to its vote, but they will respect the decision moving forward.
According to OSU figures, the Extension Service districts would raise more than $1 million annually in Umatilla County and $462,000 in Morrow County. Corp said that would help provide stable funding not only for the extension offices in both counties, but for the Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center and Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center north of Pendleton.
Between 4-H, Extension Service and the two research stations, OSU estimates its programs receive 99,000 contacts every year across both counties. However, Corp said they are struggling to keep up due to declining state and federal support.
If the service district passes in Umatilla County, Corp said OSU Extension would be able to take two part-time positions in the 4-H and master gardener programs and make them full time, which would increase their offerings and outreach.
Claire Sponseller, county leader with OSU Extension and 4-H youth development, said she serves just under 600 kids and 175-200 volunteers.
“Really, that would be huge, just to have another hand to help deliver programs,” Sponseller said.
4-H is more than just traditional livestock and cooking classes, Sponseller said. Kids can participate in everything from entrepreneurial clubs to fly tying clubs and shooting sports. She said kids who participate in 4-H are proven to excel beyond their peers in school, and develop life skills to serve their community as adults.
“That’s something we’re pretty proud of,” she said.
Funding collected by both county-wide districts would also go toward supporting CBARC and HAREC, Corp said. The agricultural experiment stations conduct multi-year projects to help farmers improve their efficiency, stewardship and bottom line, with CBARC focused primarily on dryland wheat and HAREC on irrigated potatoes.
In 2008, OSU decided that 25 percent of each station’s budget must come from local dollars. Since then, CBARC and HAREC have cobbled support from stakeholders and industry groups. With the service districts, Corp said they can be sure the facilities will have the staff and resources they need.
Corp, who also serves as CBARC director, is quick to point out that agriculture is the dominant industry in Umatilla and Morrow counties, generating a half-billion dollars in farm gate value every year. That total increases to $1 billion after factoring in the value of support industries, like trucking and food processing.
“That’s who employs the people who buy houses in your community, that pay property taxes, that send kids to your school, that buy groceries at your local grocery store,” Corp said. “I think this is really about choosing to make an investment locally in the value of research and community development.”
Statewide, 25 of the 36 counties have already implemented OSU Extension Service districts, including Malheur County in 2012 and Klamath County in 2015.
Stuart Reitz, OSU extension agent for Malheur County, said voters passed the district by close to 60 percent, charging 23 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. Funding goes to support both the OSU Extension office and Malheur Experiment Station based in Ontario.
“There were real concerns about the experiment station here being potentially closed, or just not having enough funding from the state and university,” Reitz said.
Agriculture is the lifeblood of the county, Reitz said, and the station is critical to helping growers maximize their production in a unique high desert climate.
The service district also pays for a second crop specialist with the extension office, which Reitz said helps tremendously to cover the 9,930-square-mile county.
“The district has been a way to supplement those scarcer and scarcer state funds,” he said.
Meanwhile in Klamath County, the 2008 recession forced county commissioners to shift more of its budget to mandated services and away from OSU Extension and the Klamath Basin Research and Extension Center.
A group of stakeholders and volunteers called KBREC Success gathered the signatures needed to petition and campaign for the formation of a service district, which charges 15 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. Willie Riggs, KBREC director and regional administrator for Extension Service in Klamath, Lake and Harney counties, said the district provides local base support and has helped the station to hire back three faculty positions that were lost during the recession.
“It’s tough in a rural, conservative community to ask people to pay more in taxes. Nobody likes to see something new come onto their tax statement,” Riggs said. “For us, this was the only option we had left to keep this organization in Klamath County.”
Corp said she knows it will take plenty of education to pass the districts in Umatilla and Morrow counties, but is encouraged by the feedback and support so far.
“The credibility of our scientists and faculty is really strong in the community,” Corp said. “It’s nice to see (people) making the connection.”
Contact George Plaven at email@example.com or 541-966-0825.