GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — News that federal payments to timber counties are being revived for one more year has not put rural counties in Oregon in any mood to rehire sheriff's deputies and others they have already laid off.
With many counties having tapped reserve funds to ease the pain of budget cuts, much of the $100 million coming to Oregon will go toward staving off even deeper cuts during the next go-round on county budgets.
Lane County just went through $99 million in budget cuts, which among other things forced the early release this week of nearly 100 inmates from the jail.
Budget director Christine Moody said the county expects to receive about $10 million, of which $3.5 million will go to the general fund, where the sheriff's patrols, jail, district attorney and other public safety services get their money. The rest goes to maintaining roads. Services financed by the general fund saw cuts of $14.9 million.
"I can't justify recommending to the board that we restore services when we have a very large hole again next fiscal year," said Lane County Administrator Liane Richardson. "The $3.5 million will help next year. But it doesn't solve the problem that we're in."
She added that the money will feed voter perception that they don't have to approve any tax increases, because Congress always comes through with a bailout.
Congress was expected to vote Friday on the transportation bill, which contains an amendment from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., that would restore the Secure Rural Schools Act payments to timber counties for one year, a 95 percent of last year's level. It would distribute $346 million to 700 counties in 41 states.
Of that, about $100 million goes to Oregon counties in place of their share of federal timber revenues, which went into decline in the 1990s when logging was cut to protect fish and wildlife. The expiration of the payments last year forced timber counties to make deep budget cuts, particularly to public safety.
The payments were enacted in 2000, but have been steadily ramping down until they ran out last year. Counties have not come up with new taxes to take their place, and no clear solution has emerged in Congress to increase logging on federal lands, which pay a share of timber sales receipts to counties.
In Josephine County, where 39 inmates were released after voters turned down a $12 million property tax increase for public safety, Commissioner Simon Hare said he did not expect to be rehiring laid-off deputies and prosecutors with the $5 million expected.
"We have to sock away a lot of this money just to maintain this minimum level of services going into next year," he said.
In Curry County, which has been hovering on the brink of bankruptcy, Commissioner Dave Itzen said he did not know what commissioners would decide to do with the $1 million expected to be coming. He said he did not like the idea of borrowing against the actual receipt of the money sometime late this year or early next year.
"I don't know how many more rabbits we can pull out of the hat," he said. "This million dollars is greatly appreciated. It's just that it falls short of what we normally receive in replacement for forest timber receipts that we used to get and for what we need to fashion a budget that will enable the county to survive at its current depleted status."
In Douglas County, Commissioner Doug Robertson said they have cut 200 jobs as the timber payments declined over the years. They would be backfilling reserve funds to maintain current services with the $15 million expected from Congress, and not rehiring people they would just have to lay off next year.
Robertson said he did not expect any long-term solutions to increasing federal timber revenues this year, but with wildfires burning in Colorado, Congress was likely to get serious in the next session about increasing logging on federal lands to restore beetle-killed forests and reduce fire danger.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.