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.

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.

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.

Reporter Carisa Cegavske can be reached at ccegavske@nrtoday.com or 541-957-4213.

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Senior Reporter

Carisa Cegavske is the senior reporter for The News-Review. She can be reached at ccegavske@nrtoday.com or 541-957-4213. Follow her on Twitter @carisa_cegavske

(9) comments

Neutralcomment

Remember, these are the same dishonest good old boys who said that adding commissioners for the home rule measure would result in Kate Brown taking guns and Sheriff Hanlin unable to do his job. Republicans rely on uninformed voters to keep voting for them.

RobertoJ

Slippery and slimy. It is truly Halloween in the commissioner's ball. Using money for trips and treats is hardly a measure of safeguarding our coffers. Why do we continue to allow those who are in charge pedal trips that are meant for personal use and for lobbying when we know they are personally driven? Ask Freeman about personal lobbying. Ask other commissioners that have taken right to funds for their own campaigns? Our Douglas County needs funds from the Timber Industry. But we do not depend on our commissioners to gain them. We need advocates who know the needs of the people. Perhaps trusting in the commissioners to do Douglas COunty right is like letting a wolf into the chicken pen. We know what happens then. So an investigation and audit would be refreshing. Why not let commissioners pay for their own time in Washington like the rest of us citizens not flying on the tails of politicians? They can do so.

Thomas Hall

Oakland Oaker

The commissioners always seem to want credit for any monies the gov. gives

them for the forest land. Difficult to say if they deserve any credit or not!!!

Why not just arrange a visit with the Congressmen from Oregon when they

are home visiting the scattered Oregon towns???

Difficult to justify the travel in this instant communication age.

Momos

Just remember this is Trump country. The majority of voters in Douglas County can't resist a good con man, whether he's in the Court House or the White House. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, has done more for Douglas County than Freeman ever will. A full, completely independent audit needs to be done. Let's hope that happens.

sectorstar

I had posted this in an article about Leif running for re-election for state rep a month back or so, but after this outrage started of the commissioners stealing county safety net money for their travel expenses, Leif abused his authority and had an article published in the NR asking for donations for his travel expenses....despite the fact he made more money than most people in the county make or will see in their lifetime. Now that hes a state rep, to my understanding (could be mistaken) despite being a "higher" position he actually makes less money, the kicker is it requires him to make frequent trips to Salem. Unless he has re-located to that area, its interesting how he couldn't afford his gas expenses when he had a job in his own city, but seems to do just fine now with one that requires him to drive even farther.

Unfortunately anyone who has real power to end the corruption of our commissioners probably won't do anything because they're either "friends" with Freeman and Boice, or have been bought out by them in some form or another. Yes we can always vote them out, but unfortunately the majority of the residents in douglas county don't seem to possess an IQ high enough to think for themselves when it comes to such choices. Take a look at our last commissioner election where nearly 1500 voters voted for someone who announced a month before he dropped out of the race, thus voting for him would be pointless. Usually if your voting for someone in an election in this day and age you have various resources to keep track of that person such as social media, online news, tv, radio, etc. To think what else those 1500 people do in public with that kind of common sense and mentality, terrifies me. Ironically though the stupidity of douglas county saved us from having Alek as our commissioner though. Had those 1500 people voted for him he would had won the election.

S

Why not just produce the records? Oh, wait . . . because they have something to hide!

mynamehere

I think the people would be best served if these trips were cancelled and conducted through video conferencing. No old boy networking, no expensive travel and per diem .

CitizenJoe

The self-dealing, lack of transparency, and abuse of public trust are appalling, but are consistent. Use of taxpayer money for purposes that congress did not intend is apparently a feature, not a bug. And, oh: deception: from the Communities for Healthy Forests website: "CHF has been funded by local business, utilities, tribes, and several counties, including Douglas County."--no mention of the half-million federal dollars the County Commissioners sent over, to get, what? One video promoting the interests of big timber? And no info on that website about who the directors are. It's corruption, all the way down.

smedleyb

Thank you for bringing attention to the questionable use of SRS funds in Douglas County.

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