Left in the lurch

Federal funding for western Oregon counties comes to an end

 

Sgt. Pat Downing has been with the Coos County Sheriff’s Office in southwestern Oregon for almost 30 years, and he’s never seen public safety in such bad shape.

“It’s a two-hour drive from our northernmost city to our southernmost city,” he says. “And we have only one deputy on duty at a time, for the whole county.”

Coos County laid off 48 full-time employees in the sheriff’s office last year, including half the patrol staff. Prisoners are given early release to make room for new convicts, and thanks to staffing shortages, the 200-bed jail can now only hold 95 inmates.  Meanwhile, there’s been an increase in theft – particularly of scrap metal.

It’s a tale that is repeating itself all over western Oregon, as counties face the expiration of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act. The law, enacted in 2000, was a response to the decline in logging in the 1990s. Counties that once depended on a share of the timber profits from their federal lands saw their budgets plummet when mill automation, over-cutting and environmental concerns — such as  preserving habitat for the northern spotted owl — slowed logging on large swathes of federal forest land. Secure Rural Schools provided each county with roughly the same amount of money it had received in timber receipts during the boom years. For some counties, it furnished more than half of their general discretionary fund, the money used to pay for police officers, mental health services and other basic government operations.

When the act first expired in late 2006, the Bush administration proposed selling off thousands of acres of public land to fund an extension. The proposal failed but a one-year extension was nevertheless granted in the spring of 2007.  Congress turned down a second extension early this summer, and although advocates are now trying new strategies — such as attaching the proposal to an emergency appropriations bill for Midwest flood relief — it is unlikely that such maneuvers will succeed. Counties in heavily forested Western states—particularly Oregon, California and Washington—stand to lose the most money if an extension is not approved.

“It’s pretty desperate here,” says Marlyn Schafer, commissioner for Curry County, just south of Coos. “If this legislation goes away, it will be insolvency for us.”  Both Curry and Josephine County face bankruptcy if federal funding does not resume.

Thirty-three of Oregon’s 36 counties received the federal funds, with a portion divided equally among the state’s schools and another share strictly earmarked for county roads. But the most important piece of the funding, nearly $100 million, replaced dwindling timber receipts from so-called O&C lands, which are unique to Oregon. These former Oregon and California Railroad properties — about 2 million acres — were transferred to the Bureau of Land Management in 1937 and used for logging until the downturn in the 1990s. Under Secure Rural Schools, money to replace timber receipts on O&C lands went into each county’s general discretionary fund.

In Josephine County, federal forest payments made up about two-thirds of general fund revenues. Last year, the county closed down its entire library system, reduced the jail to less than 50 percent capacity, and curtailed the sheriff’s patrol to just one shift. In Douglas County, library hours have been sharply reduced and 59 positions cut from the budget. In Lane County, proposed measures include cutting funding to the district attorney’s office, reducing its ability to prosecute felonies by an estimated 500 cases.   

To make matters worse, raising property taxes is generally not an option in Oregon. As a result of several ballot measures passed by the state’s voters in the 1990s, counties must put any property tax increases to a vote. Such ballot measures have a grim track record, even in the worst of times.

Despite the impacts, some critics doubt the loss in federal funding will be as damaging as counties claim. “They’re laying off people in areas where it’s more politically hurtful, just to make a hue and cry,” says Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. Nevertheless, Stahl supports a renewal of the funding because, he says, in the absence of a safety net, counties are more likely to push for more logging on federal lands.   

Given a choice, many county officials in areas directly affected by the loss of federal funding say they’d prefer that logging resume. “The federal government needs to return to a balanced responsible management plan for the forests,” says Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson.

One way that could happen is through the passage of the controversial Western Oregon Plan Revision, a BLM proposal that would sharply increase logging on O&C lands. The federal timber receipts from the operation would be split among 18 counties, making up in part for the losses presented by the end of Secure Rural Schools. But like the Secure Rural Schools Act, the Western Oregon Plan Revision faces a tough legislative battle.

So western Oregon counties continue to cut back on services, within the legal limits dictated by the state. The interpretation of those limits is likely to become more creative as county budgets are stretched.

“When it gets right down to it, it’s going to be about what we can afford to do,” says Coos County Commissioner John Griffith. “The law says you have to have a jail, but it doesn’t say you have to have anyone in it.”

The author is an intern with High Country News.