The timber-payment blues


Inmates accused of homicide allowed to walk free. Paved roads reverting to gravel. Local libraries closed. These are some of the results of hard choices Oregon’s rural, timber-dependent counties have had to make in recent years, as their federal timber payments have dried up. Now a slew of state bills in Salem seek to give troubled counties the option of declaring bankruptcy and allow the state to pick up the tab for essential services.

For over 100 years, rural counties and school districts in the West have depended on a share of the revenue from timber sales on federal land to pay for road construction, schools, and infrastructure. The timber payments were created to compensate counties for having a high percentage of non-taxable federal land within their boundaries.

Many rural counties received so much money from the feds that they could keep tax rates low for residents. In Oregon, timber-dependent counties like Josephine and Curry ask residents to pay just 59 and 60 cents per $1,000 of property worth. Compare that with $4.34 in urban Multnomah County, home to the city of Portland.

In the 1990s, federal timber harvest dropped as industry downsized and environmental concerns, like protecting the spotted owl and limiting clearcutting, reduced logging on federal land (look for an upcoming feature story in High Country News updating logging and conservation in the Northwest). Timber payments plummeted, and in 2000, Congress created replacement funds with the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, a temporary solution.

The Act expired in 2011 and Congress passed a one-year extension last June, tacked onto the 2012 transportation bill. But the checks are a lot smaller than they used to be -- Lane County got $1.8 million from the extension, for example, whereas in the heyday of the timber payments it received $5.8 million — and they aren’t enough to reverse many of the cuts to essential services that Lane and other counties have already made. The problem has been notoriously hard to solve. A panel of environmentalists, county officials and timber industry representatives assembled by Oregon’s governor, John Kitzhaber, has thus far been unable to come up with a solution.

Meanwhile, in election after election, rural counties have defeated tax increases (Oregon law requires property tax hikes to be put to a vote—which almost guarantees their defeat, if they are proposed at all). Last May, residents of Josephine County overwhelmingly voted down a ballot measure that would have increased taxes to $1.99 per $1,000 of assessed value. Don Reedy, a county commissioner, told The Oregonian many residents simply didn’t believe the county was broke. Later that month, “the sheriff's office issued a public safety warning for people in a 'potentially volatile situation' such as being the protected person in a restraining order. 'You may want to consider relocating to an area with adequate law enforcement services,' " the warning read, according to The Oregonian.

As an ex-newspaper reporter who covered her share of municipal budget meetings, I find it fascinating when people prefer to let essential public services suffer rather than raise taxes, even a little bit. (If you want to hear more about the effect of this type of thinking, listen to This American Life’s episode on what happened in Colorado Springs and New Jersey when residents refused to raise taxes). Why does this happen? Demographics may play a role. In Curry County, just west of Josephine, 30 percent of residents are over 65. Many are retirees who moved to the county from elsewhere, and, according to reporter Eric Mortenson, “are relatively disconnected from civic life.”

Many people just don’t seem to get the scale of the problem. An Oregon Solutions study of Curry County found that “(County) commissioners have taken increasingly severe steps to overcome the situation but have expressed concern regarding their ability to connect effectively with the community on tough issues.” They also found that voters who defeated a 2010 tax increase for law enforcement believed the federal timber payments were coming back, and generally thought smaller government is better.

This line of thinking has lead Oregonians to today, where The Oregonian reports there is “an unprecedented number of bills in the Oregon Legislature” that aim to provide relief to cash-strapped timber counties. If the bills pass, it would mean that heavily-taxed urban counties would pay for essential services for residents in rural, timber-dependent counties who continue to refuse to raise their own tax rates.

Fortunately, county governments seem to understand what needs to happen, and what is at stake, even if some of their constituents don’t. Whether they can get residents engaged is another question.

“I think we're at a point now where the federal government isn't going to be able to bail us out this time,” David Brock Smith, chairman of the Curry County Board of Commissioners, told The Oregonian. “We need to help ourselves.”

Emily Guerin is the assistant online editor at High Country News.

Photo courtesy Flickr user BLMOregon

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