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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • YELLOWSTONE TREASURES: THE TRAVELER'S COMPANION TO THE NATIONAL PARK
    Dreaming of a trip to Yellowstone Park? This book makes you the tour guide for your group! Janet Chapple shares plenty of history anecdotes and...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • COLD WEATHER CRAFTS
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.