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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Rural counties struggle with payment loss

Federal timber program expired in September

Tom Bohn releases the choker set from a group of logs in Oregon’s Siuslaw National Forest in 2004. (Associated Press)
Jonathan J. Cooper Associated Press

SALEM – Leaders from counties that depend on federal timber payments to pay for roads and police said Monday they’re hopeful that proposed federal legislation might help restore critical funding that recently expired.

Officials said they’re planning for a worst-case scenario while hoping that Congress will renew the federal funding that was intended to make up for dwindling revenue from logging in national forests.

Key leaders from timber-dependent counties met with Gov. John Kitzhaber to explain their dire financial situation.

In some counties, the federal payments made up significant portions of budgets before expiring at the end of September. The counties, along with the state and Oregon’s congressional delegation, have tried hard to persuade Congress to renew the payments but have so far come up short.

“I know there is an answer, and we’ve taken a huge step in that direction,” said Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson, who also is president of the association of counties that receive payments under one of the federal spending programs. “But in the interim, we’re going to continue to struggle until something is put in place.”

Over the weekend, three Oregon congressmen published a column in the Oregonian outlining a proposal to increase logging on some federal forestland while designating other areas for conservation. Democrats Kurt Schrader and Peter Defazio and Republican Greg Walden said they hope the plan would provide jobs for people living in rural areas and long-term stability for the local governments.

The plan would temporarily renew federal payments to help the counties continue funding schools, jails, roads and sheriff’s patrols until revenue from increased logging started flowing into their coffers.

“Given the serious fiscal crisis our forested communities face, we believe a new approach is necessary to create jobs, help stabilize Oregon’s rural communities and better manage our forests,” the congressmen wrote.

Robertson said Douglas County has historically been dependent on federal timber payments to cover 65 percent of the general fund. The county has reduced its workforce by 230 people over the last three years, decreasing spending on public safety and public works projects as well as social services and veterans programs.

“Gives you a pretty good idea of the trajectory we’re headed on, and it’s straight down,” Robertson said.

The situation is so dire that counties are seriously studying what would happen if they became insolvent or didn’t have enough money to pay for services mandated by law.

A panel of state legislators has met to look at the effects that diminished federal payments will have on timber counties and ways to diminish the impact. At the panel’s first meeting last month, legislative lawyers said Oregon counties cannot declare bankruptcy but counties can merge with voter approval.

State budget woes mean the state can’t step in and backfill the money that the federal government had been sending to the counties, said Richard Whitman, Kitzhaber’s natural resources policy director.

The state is also looking at the situation in each county and trying to determine areas where it can be helpful. The Legislature might consider changes to state law that would make it easier for counties to merge or share some of their services, Whitman said.

“It’s not a pretty picture,” Whitman said. “So we’re doing the best to prepare for that now.”