U.S. SENATE OKs FUNDS FOR CURRY COUNTY

September 15, 2000 11:00 pm

GOLD BEACH The passage of a Senate bill Wednesday that could double Curry Countys general fund was being cautiously celebrated Thursday by commissioners Bill Roberts and Lloyd Olds.

Brookings-Harbor School Superintendent Paul Prevenas, however, was skeptical that the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act would have any significant impact on school funding across the state.

Roberts said, This is wonderful. For us its been two years of solid work.

You just cant believe the amount of effort and work done on this, said Olds.

He said the commissioners sent out 120 letters of support for Senate Bill 1608 to senators and representatives. He said his staff thought it was finally over, but now must work on the thank-you letters.

Olds and Roberts doubted the extra federal funding would kick in this fiscal year, but were waiting for more details.

The bill still has to go through a conference committee to reconcile it with a similar House resolution passed last year.

Olds said he received a call Wednesday night from Rocky McVay, executive director of the Association of O&C Counties, who was in Washington, D.C. lobbying for the bills passage.

He said McVay hoped the bill would go to the conference committee immediately, but expects it to go next week.

Rep. Peter DeFazio said Thursday, Approval of this legislation remains my top priority. There are a few differences we have to work out between the bills that we hope to resolve soon, so we can have it signed into law before Congress adjourns in October.

Olds said hes heard the president is ready to sign the Senates version of the bill, but dislikes parts of the House resolution that would allow more logging.

The bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent, but it was not always easy sailing.

Federal payments to timber-dependent counties across the country will be increased by $224 million a year, with half of that going to Oregon alone.

That wasnt an easy sell in the beginning, said Olds. He said McVay told him that one senator had chewed him out like he was a child when he first approached him for support of the bill.

What turned the senators around, said Olds, was publicizing that the majority of the money would go to rural schools. He said senators realized the bill would help schools in their states, too.

There were negotiations with environmental interests, but the real stumbling block was an argument over Oregons assisted suicide law between Oregons Sen. Ron Wyden and Oklahomas Sen. Don Nickles.

Wyden, co-author of Senate Bill 1608, tried to stop Nickles bill that would have blocked Oregons physician-assisted suicide law.

Nickles had kept the timber county relief bill off the Senate floor since April. Oregons Sen. Gordon Smith finally pressured Nickles into a gentlemens agreement with Wyden.

Last minute amendments gave counties more flexibility in how and where they could spend the portion of the money dedicated to resource management projects, and the bill passed.

Wydens office called the passage a victory for rural school children throughout the nation.

Wyden said, As children across the nation are starting off the school year, I can think of no better gift than passing legislation to ensure that rural schools receive a much needed, steady infusion of funding.

Were increasing and stabilizing aid for schools and vital services in rural communities, while severing the tie between unpredictable timber harvests and county payments. Thats a huge win for rural Oregonians and the environment.

Prevenas, however, said Friday that the Oregon legislature sets school funding and that any additional federal dollars would simply replace other state funds.

I would be extremely surprised if this was a windfall for some schools in some counties with forest land in their districts, he said.

Prevenas said his opinion was backed up by Ahn Nguyen, financial specialist with the Oregon Department of Education.

He said Nguyen told him there would be no direct impact from the bill on local schools. In fact, it wouldnt even indirectly help schools.

A fact sheet from Wydens office showed that Curry County currently receives $5,666,369 annually from the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

The bill will raise that total to $9,094,744, an increase of nearly $3.5 million. Coos County would receive an increase of more than $3.1 million.

A press release from Wydens office said, In Oregon, county payments will benefit over 545,000 students enrolled in 198 school districts throughout the state.

The Wyden-Craig legislation will establish a locked-in dollar amount for rural schools and counties by averaging the three highest (timber) receipt producing years between fiscal years 1986 and 1999.

DeFazios press release estimated Curry County would receive an increase of $7 million and Coos County $5 million.

Roberts said Curry Countys general fund may get an additional $800,000, with the road department receiving an equal amount. He believed the other $2 million would somehow go directly to Curry County schools.

Olds said, The schools get the majority of it. He said school districts across the country jumped on board to lobby for the bill.

Olds said schools would get relief right away. He said Oregon school funding would be restored to the 1993 timber receipt level.

The debate has already started over what to do with the countys windfall. Roberts said it could be used to help health, education and law enforcement.

Hed like to start with the countys crumbling infrastructure. The money could mean a roof for the Livestock Pavilion on the fairgrounds, or a new animal shelter.

Roberts said people have also suggested investing the money and using only the interest to help the county.

The extra funding will only come for five fiscal years. Roberts said the county must use the money wisely to prepare for what comes after.

With prudent management, he said, We should be all right.

Olds agreed that some of the money should be used to repair buildings and protect the countys investment.

As for the rest, he said, hes in no hurry to spend it.

I want to be very cautious, said Olds, Its essentially a four-year bill and then youd better start sweating bullets again.

He said those years need to be spent finding a way to make the federal payments permanent.