Congress considers budget extension

Rep. Greg Walden argues for a seven year extension for the ‘Payment to Counties Law,’ which annually contributes roughly $2.8 million to Hood River County’s $28 million budget

May 18, 2005

For the last five years, Hood River County has been courting a sugar-daddy, which treats the county every year with a roughly $2.8 million allowance, 10 percent of the county’s 2006 budget.

Hood River has used this money to build and improve its roads, restore its watersheds and bolster its schools.

The sheriff's office invested some of that money to restore a search and rescue airplane, which its officials fly all over the county looking for wildfires, lost hikers and plane crashes.

Because of the money, Undersheriff Dwayne Troxel and Sheriff Joe Wampler no longer have to hike up to 6,000 foot Cloud Cap or wait on somebody else's emergency vehicles to carry injured hikers out.

They can now drive the snowcat straight to the top, courtesy of the annual allowance.

"It's afforded us to have a search and rescue proactive as opposed to nothing," Troxel said. "Before it was just Joe and me and the Crag Rats. To a large extent, what we've been able to do is buy equipment that allows us to respond to a variety of search and rescue types without begging and borrowing equipment, like aircraft."

This blissful relationship could end at the end of 2006, however, unless Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore. can convince Congress to extend the legislation behind it: the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act or as most refer to it, the "County Payments Law.”

To win the nod of the House of Representatives, Walden, the act's co-sponsor, must first win the approval of both the House Committee on Resources and Committee on Agriculture. The House Committee, whose chair is a co-sponsor of the bill, will vote for approval today.

The House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, which Walden chairs, held a hearing May 11 to discuss a seven-year extension to the act.

"Extending this law for another seven years is essential for our schools and for our counties," Walden said in a press release. "Moreover, it keeps the commitment the federal government has repeatedly made for nearly 100 years to communities surrounding timberlands." (The schools' cut of this money first goes into Oregon schools' general fund, which the state then re-distributes to individual school districts. The state deducts that amount of money from its disbursement.)

The Payment to Counties Law replaced a National Forest funding well that dried up in 1999 with the sharp decline of timber harvests in the National Forests.

Until then, National Forests such as Mount Hood contributed 25 percent of its annual timber harvest revenue to the counties that shared land with them.

In 1988 near the height of the National Forest timber harvest, Mount Hood National Forest handed over $2.79 million to Hood River County. In 1999, at the slump in harvest, timber receipts added up to just $1.69 million.

The annual contribution varied moderately throughout the years with the bounty of harvest, but the county had still been able to budget something since 1908 when Congress first enacted the legislation that prompted National Forests share their earnings.

Hood River County has 208,000 acres of land within Mount Hood National Forest or in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

By 1999, however, the Mount Hood National Forest's timber harvesting had slowed exponentially and so did the revenue that went along with it. The forest's staff, numbering 800 in 1990, is today just 200.

Still, many of the nation's counties had become dependent on the annual allowance. So starting in 2000, Congress used a five-year average to determine how much money the federal government would give to counties whose property includes significant expanses of unprofitable National Forest land.

Douglas and Lane counties get $50 million. Malheur County gets $9,316. And this year, Hood River County gets $2.893 million.

On Monday, the Hood River County Commission followed federal guidelines to divide the $2,893,673 allowance.

The commissioners appropriated 80 percent ($2,314,938) of it to Title I - Public Works. In Hood River County, public works takes 75 percent of this, which equates to $1.73 million. This share comprises more than half of the public works' total $3.22 million roads budget.

The commissioners designated $578,734 for Hood River's schools.

The remaining $578,734 (20 percent) funds Title II and Title III.

Title II specifically funds "Special Projects on Federal Lands," such as watershed restoration, forest thinning, irrigation ditch piping and noxious weed control. The commissioners gave $422,476 to Title II projects.

Title III is how the sheriff's office acquires and maintains rescue equipment such as its snowcat. It is what pays for the restoration of a search and rescue plane. This title directs money into search and rescue, wildfire prevention, county planning and forest-related education. Title III got the remaining $156,258.

"Any of our road work, our shoal work or bridge repair within the last years would not have been possible without these funds," said county administrator Dave Meriwether. "We wish him (Walden) Godspeed."

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