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‘Payments’ Bill: Feds flag final ‘vehicle’ to fund one more year

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

February 28, 2007

Hood River County is preparing a “worst case” budget for fiscal year 2007-08 that is minus $1.7 million in road maintenance funds.

Dave Meriwether, county administrator, said a hard look will be taken at reducing some programs. He said without federal funding to offset logging cutbacks in the Mount Hood National Forest, it will be impossible to maintain existing service levels.

However, he does not anticipate that any program will be shut down altogether. For example, he said consideration could be given to paring down library hours and scaling back the number of roadways that are plowed during winter storms. Other possibilities on the reduction list could be the number of flu vaccinations stockpiled and dollars set aside for search and rescue operations.

Meriwether said the county’s budget committee will ultimately be tasked with making these tough calls.

“In a lot of cases it’s not that the service will be eliminated, it’s just that it won’t be as readily available,” he said.

For the past several weeks, Meriwether has waited to see if attempts by Oregon’s Congressional delegation to jump start the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act would be successful.

However, he said it is time to deal with the 2007-08 budget — so the task of prioritizing services can’t be put off any longer. He still tries to remain optimistic that bipartisan teams in the House and Senate will score in the final attempt to gain a one-year extension of the program.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said having the money included in the pending Emergency Supplemental Bill is the “last vehicle that is now moving down the track.” He and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., were disappointed not to get at least the short-term fix included in a February resolution for continued funding of government operations.

“It’s not to say that something else won’t come along later but this bill is our last best hope to get money to these counties before the cutbacks begin,” said Walden, who makes his home in Hood River.

He said Josephine County, which stands to lose $16.9 million, is already in the process of reducing its workforce by half. The state’s largest recipient of county payments, Jackson County, is losing $24.3 million and will close all of its libraries in April.

Walden and DeFazio have been frantically trying to prevent counties from having to take these drastic measures. They are hopeful the Senate will incorporate the federal payments in the Emergency Supplemental Bill that is under consideration this week. Senators Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Gordon Smith, R-Ore., are working their side of the aisles on behalf of rural counties.

Meanwhile, Walden and DeFazio have submitted a petition signed by themselves and 92 peers to the ranking House leadership. They believe that document has helped to focus attention on the issue. The two officials will apply pressure to have the funding for counties included in the House version of the supplemental bill, which comes up for a vote in mid-March.

Although the legislation deals primarily with the Global War on Terror and disaster relief, Walden said it also keeps other vital government programs running.

He believes the compensation for lost timber harvests has a heightened level of importance. Walden said the funding is critical to the survivability of over 615 rural counties and 4,400 schools near national forests in 39 states across the country.

He and DeFazio contend the federal government needs to fulfill its part of a pact made nearly a century ago with rural communities. In return for having a tax base reduced by the presence of a national forest, these counties were provided with a share of timber receipts. However, a series of environmental policies has drastically reduced harvest levels during the past decade.

In 2000 the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act was passed to correct this imbalance. The money was intended to provide timber-dependent counties with time to make the transition into another economy. The formula for payments was based on three high logging years during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Walden and DeFazio introduced legislation in January to extend the act for another seven years. They said more transition time was needed in counties where a large portion of the land mass is under federal jurisdiction.

Meriwether is thankful that Hood River County — even with 61 percent of its base in national forest — is not as hard-hit by the loss of funding as are other areas. He said some cutbacks are inevitable, but a total shutdown of any program can probably be avoided.

“What we are going to do now is come up with a contingency plan that includes both best case and worse case scenarios. Then we’ll be ready if we get the money — or if we don’t,” he said.

In addition to the county’s direct loss of funding, another $580,000 will be lost from Hood River County’s share of money that is divvied up among state schools.

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