Two foam display boards outlining the Douglas County general fund and timber revenues were on display at the Douglas County commissioners meeting Wednesday.
The displays were part of Commissioner Chris Boice’s message that the county’s timber payments from the federal government were less than they were a year ago. Boice said he made the charts for the “sole purpose” of showing the public that the timber revenues were not enough to cover additional county services like a library.
“I think it’s absolutely disingenuous for the local media to put headlines together that say, ‘County receives millions in timber receipts,’ when the headlines should read, ‘County receives less than half of what they received last year,’” Boice said.
The Bureau of Land Management plans to give $4.7 million to Douglas County this year, reads a Wednesday article by The News-Review titled, “BLM to pay $4.7M in timber payments to Douglas County.” After the meeting, Boice said his remark was not in response to an article by The News-Review, but some other organization that he did not name.
The federal payments are meant to offset revenue the county once generated through timber harvests.
The county had expected to receive $2.5 million in timber payment revenues this year, so it’s slated to get an extra $2.2 million more than expected. Boice said the county purposely budgets a conservative figure to protect itself against overspending.
Although those dollars are more than the county expected to receive, they’re still less than the county would have received when it was receiving similar funds from the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, Boice said at Wednesday’s meeting.
“The sentiment is there’s folks in the community now who believe we got a chunk of money we weren’t expecting, and that there is all this money now to be spent and all our problems should be solved, when in reality, we are continuing to be squeezed,” Boice said. “We get less and less money every year.”
The timber revenue story was untimely, Boice said, since the county had made a decision regarding cutting library services earlier this week. Ten branches with the county library system will close by April 1, read a Monday county press release, and the entire system will no longer be funded by the end of the fiscal year in June.
Ever since voters turned down a taxing district in November that would have kept the library system afloat, supporters and the county have been struggling to find a means of funding it.
“A lot of folks are talking about, ‘Why don’t you use (timber payments) for the library?’” Boice said. “Really, it does little more than reduce the amount of money we are spending out of our reserve accounts. And that’s the big fear. We’re spending money out of those reserve accounts, and those accounts don’t last forever.”
On Monday, the county announced it would pull an extra $300,000 out of the general fund to keep the county library system open until the end of June. It originally budgeted a $625,000 general fund contribution.
County commissioners made the decision outside of a public meeting setting. Boice and Commissioner Tim Freeman said they were acting under an administrative task order issued by Douglas County Library Director Harold Hayes.
Hayes gave the commissioners two other options. One option would have left the budget as is, which would have prompted immediate closure of the library system due to lack of funding. The other would have been to completely fund the system indefinitely.
Although Boice came prepared to discuss timber harvests and library funding at Wednesday’s commissioner meeting, no one in the audience made a comment on those issues. Instead, a handful of commenters spoke about the county planning department’s renewal of a conditional use permit to build a gas pipeline through the county.
A federal agency denied its own permit for the same pipeline last month. That was the second time it denied the Jordan Cove pipeline. Still, the county has the ability to renew its own conditional use permit, so it did. The pipeline’s owners will need to get federal permission before they can move forward with construction.
After the meeting, Boice said he was not surprised no one spoke about the library. He did not say why.
Newly-elected Commissioner Gary Leif said the public comments took him off guard.
“I didn’t have any idea there was going to be talk about the pipeline,” Leif said. “I thought it was going to be more about the library. I was a little surprised.”