Once again, Congress has voted to extend the federal timber safety net for one year.
If the bill gains the president’s signature, and that appears likely, it’s good for Douglas and other Oregon counties that once relied on timber receipts to fund county services.
The funds, officially from the Secure Rural Schools legislation, equate to an additional $17 million for Douglas County’s general fund.
But it’s not helping the county get ahead. It will simply replace some of the money Douglas County had to remove from its savings to balance its budget.
Douglas County commissioners withdrew $44 million from savings to apply toward the county’s 2013-14 budget. We’re fortunate the county had that money set aside. County commissioners many years ago anticipated the day the safety net would expire and they began reducing the size of county government and their spending.
If they hadn’t, we might be more like Josephine and Curry counties, where public safety budgets have been gutted, leaving residents more vulnerable to crime.
Still, the diminishing funds have meant reduced hours at the Douglas County library headquarters, branch libraries, the county landfill and transfer sites. As reported in Friday’s News-Review, it’s also meant fewer roads get maintained and repaired in the county’s 12 incorporated cities. Even landslides that reduce roads to single lanes take longer to get cleaned up because of fewer funds and the annual layoffs in the Douglas County Public Works Department.
Lack of funds has forced the county fairgrounds to become self-sufficient and now the Fair Board has to mount a fundraising campaign to refurbish the nearly 60-year-old Pavilion Building.
The annual reductions continually remind us we need a stable source for funding county government. Property taxes generate only about $8.5 million annually — far short of the county’s $29.3 million general fund budget.
The Secure Rural Schools bill keeps getting passed because it appeals to a wide constituency. Overall, it provides $330 million in funding to counties in 41 different states. Oregon gets the most — this year, it’s $100 million for 33 counties — because the federal government owns 60 percent of Oregon forests and doesn’t pay taxes on that land.
The safety net is not the solution for Douglas County’s budget woes, however. Part of the solution lies in a long-term management plan for harvesting timber in a sustainable manner that doesn’t harm the environment. Such a plan would create jobs, send logs to mills and, most important, provide financial certainty for counties.
One bipartisan proposal for doing just that has passed the U.S. House of Representatives. Meanwhile, Sen. Ron Wyden is drafting his own plan to achieve those goals.
The renewal of Secure Rural Schools is crucial to buying time until a final forest management plan can be presented to Congress, approved and implemented.