Douglas County commissioners have for years taken trips back to Washington, D.C., to lobby for timber harvests, safety net payments and other timber-related issues that affect the county government’s bottom line.
They’ve used some old Title III Secure Rural Schools dollars to pay for those trips, and over the past week they’ve been taking some heat for it, including from a couple of Oregon congressmen. One of them even called for a congressional investigation.
The travel expenses have been an annual budget item since before any of the current crop of commissioners took office. It’s one that passed muster under an independent audit completed in 2018. But it’s continued to generate controversy. Here’s a rundown of the issues:
WHAT THE CONGRESSMEN SAID: Last week, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland, called for the House Natural Resources Committee to investigate the commissioners’ lobbying expenses. This week, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, criticized the expenditures as well.
The comments came after the Portland-based newspaper The Oregonian/OregonLive reported last week it asked for copies of the receipts for lobbying expenditures over the past five years, but was told it would be charged close to $2,000 for the records. The newspaper said it is appealing the charges to the Douglas County district attorney.
Blumenauer, who represents East Portland’s Third District, issued a written statement in response to the story.
“These allegations are incredibly alarming as they seem to show a pattern of reckless spending by Douglas County,” Blumenauer wrote. “This is money that is supposed to be spent on schools for rural communities, not for lobbying and certainly not for personal expenses. Furthermore, this comes at a time when this program is set to expire, and this reckless behavior makes our effort to reauthorize much harder. We need to get to the bottom of this.”
DeFazio, who represents much of Southwestern Oregon including Douglas County, also questioned the travel expenses, though he didn’t go so far as to call for an investigation.
“This is not helpful as we work in Congress to extend the program for two years — it’s not the purpose of these funds,” DeFazio said in a written statement. “Communities depend on the Secure Rural Schools Program to provide their kids a good education and to keep their families safe. Douglas County has a legal obligation to spend the funds as authorized and should be transparent about how they used them — any misuse is unacceptable.”
THE COUNTY’S RESPONSE: Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman said the money’s been put to good use because the trips have led to changes in policy that brought additional money to the county government.
“The educational work myself and other Douglas County commissioners have performed since 2015 is absolutely crucial to receiving funding for Douglas County. Our work has returned an excess of $53 million in supplemental funding to the citizens of Douglas County for vital services,” Freeman said.
According to county budget documents, only a portion of the $30,000 budgeted for commissioners’ travel each year has been spent. In 2015-16, for example, the actual expenditure of Title III funds out of the commissioners’ budget was $9,580. In 2016-17, it was $17,763 and in 2017-18 it was $15,991. Previous years’ budgets, available online, indicate the $30,000 annual budget allocation goes back at least 10 years but that expenditures were less than that.
Freeman said the travel budget allocation goes back several years before that, and that the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior told him it was an acceptable use of the funds. He said he doesn’t blame the congressmen for being upset by the Oregonian story, but it’s not accurate to say the Title III money in question could be spent on schools.
“They just are uninformed, and quite frankly, they’re wrong,” Freeman said.
WHAT THE MONEY’S FOR: Secure Rural Schools safety net payments were instituted in 2000 after federal timber harvests declined. The revenue from those harvests had historically been shared with the county government and was used to pay for an array of services, from running a library system to county parks.
At one time, the county government received tens of millions of dollars annually from federal timber harvests. When those funds dried up, the county limped along with smaller SRS payments, slashing county staff, closing the libraries, privatizing the mental and public health departments and calling on some departments to become self-supporting.
SRS payments run out every year or two, creating uncertainty and renewed debates in Congress over whether to reauthorize them. Right now, DeFazio and Sen. Ron Wyden are pushing to renew SRS funding and make it permanent.
The SRS payments come in three types — Titles I, II and III. Counties have the freedom to allocate Title I funds however they see fit. But the other two types are restricted and Title III funding is limited to just a few categories.
In 2000, there were six categories, one being “forest-related educational opportunities.” The commissioners believe that’s a broad category that includes educating federal leaders about timber harvests. The county was also embroiled in controversy two years ago for using the educational opportunities category to fund Communities for Healthy Forests videos that promoted salvaging burned timber.
In a letter to federal officials Thursday, a group of citizens called for an investigation o…
The full text of the educational use option is: “Forest related educational opportunities—A county may use these funds to establish and conduct forest-related after school programs.”
IS LOBBYING AN EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITY?: Critics have argued the commissioners are misusing the funds if they use them for anything but after school programs, but the commissioners have argued the word “may” indicates that after school programs are just one option and that the travel expenses qualify.
The education category was removed in 2008, but Freeman said the county can still use money acquired when the older provision was in place, and it has about $700,000 of those dollars remaining. Once that money’s gone, it will have to fund travel expenses another way. Title I money would be one option.
In 2018, Salem-based Kenneth Kuhns & Co. audited the county’s 2016-17 federal expenditures and found all its Title III expenditures were valid.
An independent auditor has found no funds were misspent when the Douglas County Board of Com…
The Government Accountability Office and the Office of Inspector General of the USDA, which oversees the Forest Service, had previously called out the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management for failing to oversee Title III expenditures by counties across the country. The GAO said what little guidance the Forest Service offered was confusing and directed counties to consult their own lawyers rather than the federal agencies.
The Association of Oregon Counties and the Association of O&C Counties in 2001 interpreted the education provision broadly, to include “Other programs used to provide experiences to children and adults related to forest education.”
SENATOR WYDEN WEIGHS IN: In a written statement, Wyden’s office said Tuesday the senator has introduced legislation that would make SRS payments permanent and improve transparency about how the money’s spent.
“Current legal requirements for how and when counties report their SRS expenditures are designed to ensure proper use of funds. Senator Wyden is obviously concerned any time there are reports of resources not going where they’re intended,” the statement said.
“Senator Wyden introduced bipartisan legislation this year that would put the SRS program on a permanent footing, which directly addresses the reasons identified in a USDA Inspector General report for the Forest Service’s failure to draft much-needed regulations governing counties’ use of SRS funds. The bill also includes provisions to improve transparency and strengthen reporting requirements,” it said.
“Senator Wyden is working to pass that legislation and will press just as hard after its passage to ensure the Forest Service follows through on clarifying spending regulations so these scarce federal dollars are used to support key education, transportation and public safety services in rural Oregon and nationwide,” it said.