GRANTS PASS — There's
no way to sugarcoat this: times are desperate for Josephine County and its
employees, many of whom are members of Oregon AFSCME Local 3694.
Josephine County —
"JoCo" to the locals — is quickly becoming the poster child for the
federal timber payments conundrum/crisis. Over 50 percent of the county's
landmass consists of federal forestland, meaning it won't ever be developed or
taxed. For years, JoCo and rural Oregon counties like it depended heavily on
their share of federal timber receipts to fund a large portion of county
government. Changes in economics and environmental rules have curtailed logging
as much as 90 percent. Since 2000, the Secure
Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act provided "county
payments" in lieu of the actual timber receipts, but in recent years Congress
has been reluctant to reauthorize the act, consistently passing it in the 11th
hour while reducing the payment amounts.
Congress did not re-up the Secure Rural Schools plan, leaving many counties
such as Josephine without their federal lifeline. At 58 cents per thousand,
JoCo has the lowest property tax rate of Oregon's 36 counties.
safety levy of $2 per thousand failed 57 to 43 percent on May 15, leaving the
county in dire straits. The exigent times add stress for Local 3694, which has
had its share of ups and downs — mostly downs — since 2006. The
local went on strike that year for four days. The county retaliated by
contracting out over 100 county mental health positions. While the union "won"
that case over several years of litigation, those positions ultimately stayed
in the private sector, knocking the local's membership down from over 300 to a
current total of around 185. The workers are now bracing for layoffs totaling at
least 30 positions, possibly more.
are shocked," says Council 75 Staff Representative Rodney McCambridge. "They
never really thought it would come to this. We worked hard on the levy election
and believed it had a chance of passing. This is a real blow."
failure means a direct hit of 17 positions for Local 3694 members in the
county's juvenile detention center, which will be downsized to only three beds.
Other county money will be shifted, translating into additional layoffs.
will take $425,000 from what has been a dedicated road and public works fund,
but even that is a mixed blessing," says McCambridge. "While that will have
some short-term benefits to the overall county budget, it also means that money
won't be available for road and/or bridge repair — and ultimately, to
cover salaries of public works employees, who are part of our bargaining unit."
says many of those to be laid off have 12 or more years of service with the
people who were expecting to retire as county employees," he said. "There's a
pall of gloom hanging everywhere right now. People want to be angry, but
they're not sure who to be angry with. From a local union standpoint, myself,
the president and the executive board — we're just trying to hold on and
see who's left after all of the layoffs and bumping are completed. This is a
very difficult situation."
current county commissioners have indicated they're not inclined to attempt
another levy in the fall, McCambridge says a second vote may come via citizen
good has come out of this, more people — our members and others —
have learned the importance of participation in local elections," he said.
"There's a group here that wants to make another run in November, and we will
certainly be part of that process."
There is also
a glimmer of hope that Congress could yet step in and make some allocation. A
partial reauthorization of the Rural Schools Act almost occurred within the
past month. Additionally, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who represents
Oregon's Fourth District that includes most of Josephine County, is pushing an
alternate funding plan for rural forestland counties that has AFSCME's support.
Attached to this article is a guest opinion piece from Oregon AFSCME Executive
Director Ken Allen that has appeared in several Oregon newspapers touting and
supporting the DeFazio plan.