Understandably, there has been a lot of talk this season, locally and nationally, about the threat to homes and businesses from wildfires, and about what we can do to protect our lives and property from them.
Likewise, there has been lots said about our own county government, how it is run, how it is financed and how it is adapting to meet today’s challenges, or not.
In Douglas County, both issues are related. Readers may have missed the recent investigative articles in The Oregonian. They discussed the alleged misuse of Secure Rural Schools Title III grant money by our county commissioners, past and present. These “safety net” funds came from the federal government, which means they come from taxpayers like you and me. When SRS began in the early 2000s there was some confusion about how those funds ought to be used. Hearing that Title III money was being awarded incorrectly, Congress tightened up the rules significantly, when they reauthorized SRS in 2008. Hearing that things still weren’t right, Congress asked the General Accounting Office to look around, ask questions and report back. Between August 2011 and July of 2012, the GAO did just that.
In July of 2012, the GAO issued its report and recommendations. As part of this process, three counties in Oregon were contacted: Lane, Josephine and Douglas. One suspects “off label” uses of Title III funds, such as those recently reported in The Oregonian, were discussed by GAO with some spokesperson representing Douglas County. Despite this extensive investigation and further tightening of Title III rules, our county commissioners were prepared to award some $190,000 to a local nonprofit, whose mission appears to align closely with that of Big Timber. This application included several proposed activities that were not even close to the rules set forth in 2008. Instead, much of the grant appeared to be intended for little more than thinly disguised lobbying and propagandizing for the direct benefit of Big Timber.
In 2016, this same local nonprofit applied to the county commissioners for another $300,000 in Title III funds. In both years, our commissioners awarded these public dollars over strong formal objections; written objections filed with the commissioners in 2015; and oral objections made directly to the board of commissioners regarding the 2016 Title III grant application. With these objections, entered into the public record, the Douglas County commissioners were put on clear notice that the proposed uses of these public monies did not appear to be in compliance with the SRS or “safety net” law, as currently written.
Although the amount of the 2015 grant was reduced, these objections were largely brushed aside last year, and, over those strong oral objections, the full $300,000 was awarded. Instead of putting these scarce dollars to work reducing the fuel load within 200 feet of folks’ homes and businesses in the wildland urban interface, as Congress largely intended, $200,000 was slated to be shipped out of the county and out of state to California in order to make a film, whose message neatly aligned with that of many in Big Timber.
County taxpayers need to know that local crews could have been put to work with that money, helping to protect homes and businesses against what has happened recently in Northern California. Instead, our commissioners chose to put your tax dollars to work doing what many might reasonably consider to be little more than blatant propagandizing for those same Big Timber interests.
Perhaps even more disturbing to some, is the fact that our county commissioners awarded tens of thousands of these same tax dollars, which Congress largely intended to reduce the threat of wildfires to homes and businesses, to Wildlife Services, the agency tasked with killing wildlife on private lands, including the private lands of this same Big Timber.
Instead of allegedly subverting Title III money, as reported in The Oregonian, to jet back to Washington, D.C., and demand a bigger cut from your public lands, our county commissioners might have done better to drive to Salem and lobby the governor and the Legislature to reinstate reasonable harvest taxes on timberland ownerships over 5,000 acres. Those very profitable concerns can well afford to, once again, make a more reasonable contribution to help support county services, like the sheriff, parks and library. After all, it was reported in The News Review that Roseburg Forest Products has purchased 158,000 acres of forestland in Virginia and North Carolina, and is building a nearly half-billion-square-foot plant back there to process those trees. Last year, Weyerhaeuser bought out the Plum Creek forestlands in Douglas County and elsewhere for more than $8 billion dollars. Going broke? I don’t think so.
Given these facts, one is forced to ask just whose best interests our county commissioners actually represent.