The extension of Secure Rural Schools Payments for Curry and other rural counties was included in a final surface transportation conference bill approved Friday in Congress, after a push by the Oregon delegation in both the House and Senate.
“For us, roughly, it would mean about $1 million,” Commission Chair David Itzen said Thursday, after news of a congressional agreement became public.
Itzen and other Curry County commissioners said they appreciate the money the county will receive, but it doesn’t solve the county’s budget woes.
“It’s for one year only, one time only, based on 95 percent of the last authorized payment,” he said.
That payment was only a fraction of what the county had been receiving in the timber payments in the past.
Officials believe the payments could reach counties by December or January, Itzen said. Meanwhile, the county’s new fiscal year starts this weekend.
The commissioners on Wednesday approved a budget worked out by the county’s Budget Committee that takes $350,000 from the vehicle replacement fund, $700,000 from the County Road fund and $450,000 from the county’s working capital to keep the county operational until July 1, 2013.
But they say the county cannot function after that without another source of revenue. Taxes and fees collected for the county’s general fund amount to about $2.1 million a year, and they say the county needs about $5 million in income to provide necessary services.
“We will have to address what we will do with that (federal payment) when and if the money comes,” Itzen said. “A lot of things can happen by then.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) managed to get the reauthorization included in the Senate version of the transportation bill in March. A House-Senate conference committee kept it in the final package, with three of five Oregon congressmen directly involved. Democrats Peter DeFazio and Earl Blumenhauer were members of the committee; Greg Walden worked with the Republican leadership to secure the reauthorization.
The overall bill was a battle with a deadline in Washington, D.C. “Fourteen days ago I would have told you we were not going to get a bill,” DeFazio told the Pilot Friday. “A large contingent of the new Republican freshmen believe ... that the federal government has no duty, business or authority to invest in transportation.
“They didn’t like the county funding part either,” DeFazio added.
“We expressed our gratitude to all the congressional delegates, but we have pretty much an empty bucket,” Itzen said. “It’s not sufficient. It doesn’t cover the whole thing. We’re still short a lot of money. We need well over $3 million a year.
“The federal government owns 66 percent of our county, the state another 1 percent. That’s really the problem.”
In announcing that the temporary extension of Secure Rural Schools Payments will be included in a final surface transportation conference bill, DeFazio said he and his colleagues had fought for two years to include that extension for Oregon counties.
“Recent county budget cuts have forced painful layoffs, eliminated jail beds releasing inmates early, and limited county sheriffs’ ability to respond to rural emergencies. This temporary extension will provide much needed breathing room for forested communities in Oregon that are quickly approaching financial disaster,” DeFazio said.
“Ultimately our counties and rural communities need a long-term solution – and this extension gives us the time we need to pass comprehensive federal legislation,” he said.
“I have proposed a bipartisan agreement with Rep. Walden and Rep. Schrader that can break us out of the decades-long logjam on federal forest policy, put Oregonians back to work, improve forest health, and disentangle the health of rural counties from unpredictable federal support payments. We will continue to work with the House Resources Committee to move this long-term solution for Oregon forested communities,” DeFazio said.
Last fall, DeFazio, Walden, and Schrader worked with stakeholders to reach a bipartisan agreement on a long-term plan for the O&C counties. Since then, they’ve been working with the House Resources Committee to integrate the provisions of their proposal into larger committee legislation.
“No one outside of Oregon either knows or cares about the O&C,” DeFazio said. The plan would separate the federally held O&C timber lands into two trusts, one for reserves and one for timber production.
DeFazio said Friday they have been told there would be a vote in July by the Republican leadership, but earlier suggestions of action have not come to pass.
DeFazio told the Pilot that Gov. John Kitzhaber has appointed a key staff member to meet with the Oregon delegation later in July to keep working on the county funding issues. “Everybody knows how important it is.
“We need people to keep talking it up and pushing it,” DeFazio said of what needs to happen next. “The enviros (in the Portland area) are just going crazy. What I need is good indications of support from the counties that are impacted.”