Time to think bigger

"County set to leave statewide lobbying effort"

— Dec. 20 headline

And not just an "effort." The Jackson County Commissioners are ending membership in the Association of Oregon Counties (AOC), which has networked counties for more than a century.

With what's going on in the world, this is not a story that made readers spill their morning coffee. There's little reason it should. This is an "inside baseball" story, and most fans care much more about what happens out on the field than in the clubhouse or front office. But for those wonkish enough to follow the workings of Oregon government, this is a very big deal. AOC has long included all 36 Oregon counties. None has dropped out before.

As a veteran of four county budget sessions where a list of organizational dues was approved with little or no discussion, I'm glad to see evidence of critical thinking. I've never been much on "We do it this way because we've always done it this way." In an op-ed piece, Commissioner Dave Gilmour says the decision fits with other ways they have "challenged many long-held assumptions on how our county government should be run": ending long-term contracts with professional lobbyists, contracting out library services, moving to self-insurance for employees for lower health-care premiums. Maybe you like the individual decisions and maybe you don't; at least they recognize you can't cruise on autopilot as the economy falls apart around you. (Commissioners might want to send a memo to designers of the Wall Street bailouts.)

Was this a good decision? Commissioners have a backlog of complaints, but the last straw was reportedly AOC's failure to support a bill that would have partially compensated counties for assessing and collecting taxes on property. This is the latest chapter of a painful story: Counties foot the whole bill for assessment and collection of taxes that mostly go to other jurisdictions — cities, school districts, fire, sewer and other special districts — and new developments have pushed that bill higher. Now, for citizens who use all those services and don't much care about which government charges how much to whom, this is really inside baseball. But it gives serious heartburn to those responsible for balancing county budgets.

Commissioner Gilmour says AOC fell down because it "did not wish to harm established 'relationships' with the city, school district and special district statewide organizations."

In other words, it didn't stand up for counties. And when it's time to write a $31,000 dues check to something called the Association of Oregon Counties, you want to trust it to stand up for counties.

But there's a less obvious question that needs attention and might get it with this pattern-interrupting move: Stand up to who? To cities and special districts? For all the heat on this issue, it looks a lot like siblings fighting over crumbs falling from the table. All kinds of local governments have a huge problem these days, and it's not whether they're paying fair service fees to one another. It's that the capacity of Americans to pay for public services is getting soaked up by a national government that is delivering much less value to citizens than cities, counties, school and special districts are delivering every day. The who Jackson County really needs AOC to stand up to, in alliance with hundreds of counterparts, is the black hole of unaccountable public spending we call the federal government

Maybe this seems like changing the subject mid-column. It's not. This story forces the question of why Jackson County should keep paying dues to AOC. Based on the record to date, the answers may be thin. But what if AOC, along with every state, county, city and school district in the country (and there are hundreds of them), stood up to Congress and said, "You know those hundreds of billions you spend on education and housing and commerce and agriculture? How about if next year you give us a quarter of those funds and see what we can show you?"

It's not clear what could happen. It is clear that it's time to shake things up on a much bigger scale than who pays for administering property taxes, and that AOC could be a player that helps Jackson County do that.

If I had to guess, I'd say that the county's absence will be temporary. This first-ever secession is not a precedent that AOC can readily accept.

"I'm hopeful about clearing up a misunderstanding about some sequence of events that happened during the last session. We've got a failure to communicate," said AOC's director, possibly a fan of "Cool Hand Luke." They'll probably "clear it up" with a nice sweetener for Jackson County, which might have been the aim all along. If it works and the county returns, I hope it's with fresh eyes about what the AOC needs to be. It's time to think much bigger.

Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups" and the novel "Unafraid," with excerpts available at www.unafraidthebook.com. He was a Jackson County commissioner from 1987-1991.

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