The Associated Press May 19, 2011, 11:53AM ET

Ore. Senate urges federal aid for timber counties

In rural western Oregon, one sheriff's deputy patrols nearly 80 miles of coastline alone. And for several hours a day, no one does.

Such are the daily realities of Curry County, a coastal community of about 22,000 people, which has had to cut services due to budget woes.

The county depends on a federal timber-related subsidy for nearly half its operating budget. Without it, the county will be bankrupt in one to two years, said county Commissioner Bill Waddle. Other counties in the state are not far behind, state officials say.

Oregon state senators unanimously passed a measure Wednesday urging Congress to continue federal funding to "timber counties" such as Curry County.

"The federal government owes the state of Oregon," said Sen. Larry George, R-Sherwood, who carried the bill. "They have hurt our schools; they have hurt our local governments... our rural economy is falling apart."

With about half of Oregon designated as federal land, the state receives the largest share of such funding. The payments came into existence initially as a series of safety nets in the 1990s while restrictions to protect fish and wildlife diminished logging activity and county revenue. Federal lands cannot be taxed by counties or be developed.

In 2008, the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000 was appropriated for four years, sharing about $3.3 billion with more than 700 counties in 41 states. Final payments go out this year. In Oregon, 33 of 36 counties will receive more than $100 million in fiscal year 2011, according to Eric Schmidt, a spokesman for the Association of Oregon Counties.

Depending on the land, a portion of the federal money is spread throughout the state for education. In 2008, $33 million of the $230 million went to education. Some of the money also goes to general-fund areas such as law enforcement, while a certain portion must go to building roads and bridges.

Oregon counties are struggling to find new sources of revenue in a difficult economy, and many of the timber counties face double-digit unemployment. Meanwhile, voters consistently have turned down measures to raise property taxes, county officials said.

Yet voters in Curry and Josephine counties in southern Oregon all turned down public-safety levies last year. Klamath County voters on Tuesday voted down a measure that would help keep their jails fully opened. None of the jails have money to operate at full capacity.

In Curry County, nearly 65 percent of its land is U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management lands. Only about 5.5 percent of the land provides a substantive tax base, Waddle said.

Waddle said he spent all morning with the sheriff discussing the "bare-bones" budget.

"One murder case, one episode in jail where we have to hospitalize an inmate -- anything like that will absolutely throw him upside down in his budget," Waddle said.

He said nearly half of the county's $5 million budget comes from the federal payment, which decreases each year. The county expects to receive $1.6 million in November, Waddle said.

"We've been depleting our reserves to maintain the list of mandated services we're required by statute to provide," Waddle said.

In Douglas County, a lumber company informed officials Wednesday it will be laying off 240 employees, and the local government has lost 170 budgeted positions over the last several years, said county Commissioner Doug Robertson.

"In some counties, it's going to mean life or death," Schmidt said.

Some of the eastern Oregon counties are making plans to start "pounding some of their paved roads back into gravel," Schmidt said.

President Barack Obama included a provision to renew the program in his budget but at increasingly lower levels each year, but county officials say they will need more.

Oregon, California, Washington, Idaho and Montana all have large amounts of national forests and other federal lands, and have been the biggest recipients of money from the Secure Rural Schools and Communities payments.

"We have the most trees," Schmidt said. "We like to say, Oregon built the postwar boom in the United States. The trees from Oregon's forest went out across the country to help build houses."

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Tami Abdollah can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/LATams.


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