Columbia County officials anticipate dim financial future
by: Darryl Swan CLOSED FOR BUSINESS — Columbia County has limited its services, including closing county offices on Fridays, in response to a revenue shortfall.

Columbia County officials are optimistic inclusion of a one-year extension for federal timber payments that netted $705,000 this year has been included President Obama's federal budget proposal.

Whether it will be enough to offset further cuts to county services at the start of the fiscal budget year in July is too early to tell.

Columbia County Commissioner Tony Hyde, who spent a large portion of the morning on Tuesday, Feb. 14, discussing timber payment funding over the telephone with a lobbyist hired by the Association of O and C Counties, said he hesitates to put too much stock in the budget inclusion.

'Anything that's in the president's budget doesn't mean much on the Hill right now,' Hyde said. 'I'm not going to read anything into it, but at least it's on the radar screen.'

The president's proposal is to fund an extension of the original legislation, approved as the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act in 2000 under the Clinton administration, at $328 million nationwide. The bill was intended to offset the blow to rural timber-dependent communities who suffered critical declines in revenue after tightened environmental restrictions around the spotted owl and salmon resulted in curtailed logging.

Oregon, with its vast portfolio of federal timberland, receives the lion's share of the payments.

A broader bill is circulating through the House of Representatives that Hyde said expands on an earlier concept to split federal forestland into managed trusts: one for conservation, one for logging.

Rep. Greg Walden had spearheaded an earlier idea to divide 2.4 million acres of federal land in Oregon, half of which would be held for conservation and half would be timbered via a trust board.

The larger bill would build off of that premise and presumably cover federal timberland, which would likely gain traction among lawmakers from other states who view the timber payments and corresponding issues as an Oregon problem.

'We're a pimple. We have to realize that. It's a big deal to Oregon, but it's not a big deal to D.C.,' Hyde said.

Timing for an extension is critical from a Columbia County perspective. At its height, federal timber payments yielded an annual payment of $2.4 million. Today, the county receives about 31 percent of that figure.

County woes

Columbia County Commissioner Earl Fisher said an early look at the county budget indicates a preliminary shortfall between $1 million and $2 million.

A similar scenario occurred last year, resulting in a $750,000 draw from the county's contingency account and implementation of a furlough program for courthouse employees to make up an additional $750,000.

Courthouse employees' union representatives argued the furlough, which resulted in employees being off work without pay every other Friday, violates terms of its labor contract and filed a grievance, which is in arbitration.

Fisher said the preliminary budget does not include the furlough program.

Still, he said the likelihood the county could draw further from its reserve fund has been diminished.

'What we probably could not do that we did last year is look at our carryover balance as cash reserves,' he said. 'I'm really concerned. I think people are going to have to think about, 'How do we function?''

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