WASHINGTON - Oregon counties may have to return $3.6 million to the federal government after the U.S. Forest Service determined that recently distributed timber payments are subject to mandatory budget cuts that went into effect March 1.
Curry County stands to lose an estimated $82,000, County Commissioner David Itzen said Friday.
"We've already awarded contracts and agreed to match grants based on receiving that money," Itzen said. "It just doesn't make sense to ask for the money back now."
On Thursday, 31 members of Congress wrote to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, demanding that the agency stop its efforts to collect $18 million from 41 states that receive payments under the Secure Rural Schools program.
"Though the Forest Service was aware of the pending automatic spending reductions for many months, and the sequester took effect on March 1st, the agency made no mention of an impact on SRS payments until March 20th," the letter states.
"For the administration to announce three months after the disbursement of these payments that they are subject to the sequester, and that states will receive a bill for repayment of funds already distributed to counties, appears to be an obvious attempt by to make the sequester as painful as possible."
The letter was signed by three member of the Oregon delegation: Reps. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, and Kurt Schrader, D-Canby.
Congress first enacted the Secure Rural Schools program in 2000 to compensate heavily forested counties whose local economies were devastated by federal limitations placed on logging on public land. The payments, designed to grow smaller over time, were meant to help portions of local budgets, including spending on schools and roads, normally supported by the tax base until the region could develop a non-timber based economy.
Last year, Oregon received almost $100 million in timber payments, including $36 million from the Bureau of Land Management for the 18 counties that include a portion of the federally owned former Oregon and California Railroad Co. lands in Western Oregon.
The Forest Service is seeking to recover almost $18 million nationwide.
The Bureau of Land Management, which distributes SRS payments to the 18 counties, announced last month that it was withholding 10 percent of its payments because of sequestration. Conversely, the Forest Service distributed full payments totaling $323 million, only to ask for about 5 percent back.
In a joint statement, Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Oregon Demcrats, called for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, to halt its efforts to recover the SRS funds.
"The administration clearly failed to plan for the impact of the sequester on Secure Rural Schools funding for rural counties, as demonstrated by the contradictory approaches taken by Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Department of Agriculture," they said. "Rural communities should not pay the price for bad planning by bureaucrats."
The Forest Service did not respond to a request for comment for this story.