The county payments/timber
payments crisis continues unabated. Josephine County, where a public safety
levy failed in May, recently released over 30 county jail inmates and
drastically cut sheriff's patrols. Lane County most recently released a report
detailing how road projects would be delayed. Curry County is on the verge of
going bankrupt, if that were legal in Oregon (it isn't; municipal jurisdictions
can't declare bankruptcy in the state).
U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley
(D-Ore.) was in Prineville recently talking about the need to fix the crisis.
U.S Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) has a plan AFSCME supports to the extent that
Council 75 Executive Director Ken Allen sent a guest opinion article to several
Oregon papers detailing the union's agreement. The union, county commissioners
and the Association of Oregon Counties have lobbied hand-in-hand several times.
It's the one issue, perhaps the only issue, that unites Oregon's Congressional delegation, including Rep.
Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the state's lone GOP presence in Washington, D.C.
So why doesn't anything
happen? Alas, this article will provide no answers, but does attempt to help
frame the background and partially answer the question, "How did we get here?"
The map graphic attached to
this article illustrates a big part of the problem. The federal government owns
huge percentages of the lands in western states — which, with the notable
exception of California, aren't heavily populated. Lack of population equals
less representation in the U.S. House of Representatives, which is where most
federal budget issues begin.
For years, rural Oregon
counties 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. The
current Congress did not re-up the Secure Rural Schools plan, leaving many
counties without their federal lifeline.
are many U.S. counties nationwide that shared in the Secure Rural Schools
payments, Oregon counties accounted for well over half of the national total
paid out. In essence, many lawmakers east of the Mississippi view the program
as nothing more than an expensive federal handout, and believe the counties
simply need to diversify economically. The Oregon counties would quickly argue
that's easier said than done if your boundaries include 50 percent or more
federal forestland, property that can never be developed or taxed.
state forestland factored in, 16 of Oregon's 36 counties (see below) have more
than 50 percent of their landmass tied up, with Union (48 percent) and Jackson
(47 percent) counties not far off. Even Clackamas County, one of the "tris" in
the Portland tri-county metropolitan area, includes 45 percent federal/state
Coos are the two counties in the most trouble where AFSCME represents the bulk
of county workers. Lane and Hood River are probably the next two in line,
although such distinctions are arbitrary. As a result of the traditionally
heavy federal subsidy, Josephine County has the dubious distinction of having
the lowest property tax rate per thousand in Oregon, at just under 58 cents.
Multnomah County residents, in contrast, pay $4.34 per thousand. Citizens of
tiny Sherman County, with 1,825 residents and only 831 square miles, pay $8.71.
counties that include over 50 percent federal and/or state forestland include
(alphabetically) Baker, Coos, Crook, Curry, Deschutes, Douglas, Grant, Harney,
Hood River, Josephine, Klamath, Lake, Lane, Malheur, Tillamook and Wallowa.
(Editor's note —
Attached to this article in PDF format is a chart from the Association of
Oregon Counties that shows each county's breakdown of population, landmass, tax
rate, miles of roads and the percentage of federal/state forestland.)