SALEM — Curry County Sheriff John Bishop on Wednesday had one message for members of the Oregon House of Representatives Task Force on O&C Counties.
“We need to start logging. We need to put people back to work so they can be more self-sustaining, so they can take care of themselves and live in a community where they feel safe and comfortable,” Bishop said Thursday after returning from the Salem meeting.
Because of reduced timber harvests, the counties’ timber receipt incomes have been drastically cut in recent years, pushing the counties into financially precarious positions.
Bishop, four other Oregon sheriffs, a district attorney and a police chief were invited to speak before the task force, a 14-member panel created by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber to solve the complex O&C timber issue.
“If anything this helped keep the message out there,” Bishop said. “If we can get just one or two legislators on board it might help.”
He hoped the task force would use his testimony and that of other public safety officials to package a strong message and send it to Washington D.C.
Each county representative was given 10 to 15 minutes to talk about what is happening in their respective counties.
Bishop explained that, if voters reject a public safety levy in May, the county would be operating with a $2.1 million budget come July 1. That would leave the Sheriff’s Department with about $800,000 — only enough money to pay for the sheriff, two marine deputies — funded by the state — and the county jail.
Bishop said reinstating lost timber revenue funds would help, but is not the final solution.
“That’s not the answer. It’s never been the answer. We need to get our citizens back to work,” he told the task force. “We need to start logging again.”
Bishop said several task force members were surprised by the severity of the situations in Curry and other counties.
“When I told them what was happening in Curry County, their reaction was ‘Really? Things are that bad?’,” Bishop said.
According to Bishop, current Oregon statistics show that Curry County has a high unemployment rate of about 13 percent but, in reality, it is likely much higher.
“It’s probably double that,” he said. “There are a lot of people who have given up looking for work and are not included in the unemployment figures; they’ve fallen off the grid.”
He explained that drug, alcohol and mental illness issues are increasing in Curry County. The county jail is often full, forcing the sheriff to release inmates to make room for more serious offenders.
Currently the Sheriff Department employs four deputies — not enough to provide 24-hour service to the communities.
Bishop said he joined the Sheriff’s Department in 1988 as a deputy.
“Back then we had 16 deputies and three sergeants, and now were down for four deputies and one sergeant,” he said. “We had three detectives back then, now I’m down to one.
Bishop said that Curry County’s three cities have their own police departments, but each will be impacted by the losses incurred by the county. For example, city officers will not have backup from sheriff’s deputies and they will have to decided whether or not to respond to calls outside city limits.
Port Orford has three officers, Gold Beach has four and Brookings has 14, Bishop said.
“The situation this puts them in is not good,” he said.
The lack of deputies could also prevent paramedics from reaching patients in potentially dangerous situations.
Paramedics and firefighters often have to wait for a deputy to arrive to make sure it is safe for them to do their job, Bishop explained.
Public safety officials from other counties and cities voiced similar concerns.
Cottage Grove Police Chief Mike Grover said budget cuts to Lane County have forced the city to handle criminal cases through its municipal courts, not the county courts.
“We had 63 felony cases handled through municipal court and not the county,” Grover said.
The city has also operated a 16-bed jail since 1983.
“We’ll cover sheriff’s deputies and Oregon State Police troopers, but we won’t take calls outside of city limits,” Grover said.
He, too, blamed Lane County’s problems on the lack of logging and subsequent missing revenue.
Lane County District Attorney Alex Gardner said budget cuts have reduced the number of investigators in his office from 11 to three, and the number of detectives from 26 to five. The sheriff’s department once had 99 patrol deputies and is down to 20 — not enough to provide 24-hour coverage to a county that is the size of Connecticut.
Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson said the loss of logging revenue over the years has crippled the county and it’s economy.
He said the 11 to 12 percent unemployment rate given by the state is “probably a conservative estimate for Josephine County; it is probably closer to 20 percent.”
Gilbertson cited the closing of mills across the state and loss of 12,000 timber jobs during the last 20 years.
“When we could use our (timber) resources, from 1970 to 1981, the county didn’t collect taxes,” he said.
The loss of timber funds to the county’s budget has decimated his department, Gilbert said. He currently has three deputies, two will have to work the jail, and there are no investigators.
Oregon State Police have brought in four more troopers to patrol the county, but “we do have an unsafe environment,” he said.
“Folks are now taking the law into their own hands,” he said. “It has demoralized our agency.”
Rep. Bruce Hanna (R-Roseburg), task force co-chair, called for the forming of a forest plan that would result in long- term sustained yield of harvested timber.
“Timber receipts paid the bills,” he said.
— Scot Jorgenson, deputy communications director of the Oregon House Republican Office, contributed to this report.