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County payments in jeopardy


   Since 2000, Jefferson County, along with over 700 rural counties across the country, has received an annual federal payment to compensate for a decline in timber harvest levels.
   Unless the U.S. Congress takes action to extend the payments when it reconvenes in 2007, the $837,851 check the county receives in the next few weeks will be its last.
   "This is going to hurt a lot if it doesn't happen," said Geoff Stuckart, media liaison for Sen. Ron Wyden. Stuckart said that Congress adjourned early Saturday morning without allowing consideration of an amendment cosponsored by Wyden and Sen. Gordon Smith to extend the $500 million in payments for another year.
   The joint legislation would have closed a tax loophole that allows government contractors to avoid tax obligations to help fund the extension.
   "Now we go back into the next Congress that convenes in early January, and this is top priority for senators," said Stuckart. "Congress will be a new place. There will be new faces, obviously new leadership. We hope they will be more sympathetic to the plight of rural communities than the current leadership was."
   The original law, called the Secure Rural School and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000, was enacted to address the decline in revenue from timber harvest on federal lands in recent years. Counties such as Jefferson relied upon those payments, which were based upon an average of the top three years of payments from federal lands within their borders.
   The funding, over half of which goes to counties in Oregon, has been used to support roads in rural counties and all of Oregon's public schools.
   The bulk of the funds received by Jefferson County goes to the County Road Department, which is also supported by gas tax and vehicle registration fees, but no local property tax money.
   Because the road department receives no general fund money from the county, it will take the largest hit if the funding is discontinued, according to Mike McHaney, director of the road department.
   For the current year, with projected revenue of $1,892,111 for the department, the timber payment will account for about $554,611 of that -- approximately 29 percent.
   "The federal government has historically understood the need for counties to be compensated for the federal lands in their county that cannot be taxed locally," he explained.
   With 650 miles of roads across the county -- 257 paved miles, 220 graveled miles, with the balance in primitive roads -- the department, which still has the same level of staffing that it had in the 1980s, has its hands full.
   "We've been preparing, knowing that this could be a reality," McHaney said. "We've been pretty frugal in what we spend; we'll have a healthy beginning fund balance. We've known this was a possibility."
   McHaney hates to speculate about what will happen to his department if the funding stops. "Obviously we're hoping that they deal with it in the new Congress," he said.
   Although most of the funding goes to roads, School District 509-J will receive about $154,000 for the current school year, according to Dan Chamness, chief financial officer for the district.
   "It's been as high as $225,000 a year," he said, noting that the amount is based on a state school formula. "It hurts all schools. It reduces the amount total available for schools. It impacts even schools that do not get federal forest receipts."
   While $154,000 represents less than half of a percent of the school's $33,360,000 general fund budget, Chamness pointed out that all funding sources are important.
   "The bigger impact would be the incidental impact; we use a lot of county roads," he said, noting the importance of well-maintained roads for the school buses that transport the district's students.
   The balance of the county payment -- over $125,000 this year -- supports Resource Advisory Committees, which recommend projects affecting federal lands, and six categories of specific projects: search, rescue and emergency services on federal lands; community service work camps for federal lands; easement purchases; forest-related educational opportunities; fire prevention and county planning; and community forestry.
   "It's going to be very difficult," commented County Commissioner Bill Bellamy, who isn't optimistic about the chances for a renewal of the funding source.
   "It's too bad, but we knew it was a five-year program," he said. "I think our best chance was this year."
   Bellamy noted that with over half the money going to Oregon, "It's very difficult to convince the other senators and representatives from the other states that they should allocate this kind of money to one state, and we knew that."
   He would like to see the state encouraging the production of more timber. "There's absolutely no reason why the forests in the state of Oregon are not able to produce more harvestable timber," he said. "If we had more timber going to the sawmills, that would be the answer to the problem."