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911 calls go unanswered in some Oregon counties

By Mayra Cuevas and Steve Almasy, CNN
May 24, 2013 -- Updated 1926 GMT (0326 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Woman was assaulted after calling 911 and being told no officer was available
  • State may vote to impose taxes on counties that lack certain public safety workers
  • Many residents of Josephine County are set on defending themselves, commissioner says
  • Logging-dependent counties lost money from federal government program they used for public safety

(CNN) -- Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber is considering legislation that would declare a public safety emergency in some Oregon counties where residents often have been left to try to fend for themselves.

The measure would also impose a temporary income tax on residents of counties unable to pay for public safety workers due to budget cuts.

"The state has an interest in maintaining a network of public safety throughout Oregon," said Amy Wojcicki, a spokesperson for the governor, in an e-mail statement to CNN.

Josephine County, where there is one sheriff and three deputies to serve 80,000 people, would be one of those affected.

The shortage of officers and the department's limited hours led to an incident in August that helped prompt state legislators to take action, CNN affiliate KOBI reported.

A woman was assaulted by her ex-boyfriend after she called 911 and tried to get an officer at her home.

Her call was transferred to the state police because the sheriff's department isn't staffed 24 hours a day or seven days a week, the station said. A dispatcher for the state police said, "Uh, I don't have anybody to send out there. You know, obviously, if he comes inside the residence and assaults you, can you ask him to go away?"

The man was arrested later that day, was later convicted and is imprisoned, KOBI reported.

Her distress call is not the only that has come in with officials unable to help, the station said.

On Tuesday, residents of Josephine County, shot down a measure to increase property taxes to increase funding for their depleted sheriff department, court security, animal control and juvenile justice.

The tax levy, voted down by 539 votes, would have provided a $9.6 million yearly fund over three years.

"It would have allowed us a calm breathing room to arrive a better funding source," County Commissioner Keith Heck told CNN.

The average increase per homeowner would have been about $200 a year, explained Heck.

"We have had a history of people being very protective of having the lowest property tax in the state of Oregon. There has to be a groundswell of people that will be able to move those folks into a minority," said Heck, who expressed frustration at the fact that 49% of registered voters in the county did not vote.

But as Heck explained, there is a very popular sentiment in the community of taking the law into your own hands.

"And that is all fine and dandy until you have to shoot somebody. But you better make sure you have shot him in accordance with the law because in an effort to save yourself $200 a year, you could lose everything you have. This is a real myopic view that permeates many folks in the community. They see only their situation instead of the community structure. They think, 'I will prospect only my land,'" Heck said.

Commissioner Simon Hare told KOBI that Oregon doesn't need to step in.

"I'm never for authority being usurped by the state," he said. "I think we are best in a position to reflect the will of the people here and I always advocate for local control."

Josephine County's budget was dependent on a federal subsidy program, which dispersed money to offset shrinking timber receipts to 33 counties in the state, he said. It dried up last year, and the county has not received any funding this year.

The federal government owns 70% of the land (which cannot be taxed by local governments) in the mostly forested county, where the last mill recently closed.

But even if Kitzhaber and Oregon lawmakers pass the public safety emergency bill, local legislative leaders and the county's governing body would have to consent to it.

That is a conversation, Heck said, that hasn't happened yet.

CNN's Stefan Simon contributed to this report.

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