Politicians seek new way to keep counties solvent

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer October 09, 2012 10:57 pm

 

Politicians have again jumped into the fray in an attempt to figure out a new way to balance the need to keep O&C counties fiscally solvent and manage the forests in those counties in a way that will appease all involved.

The O&C Trust, Conservation and Jobs Plan (OCTCJP) was crafted by U.S. Reps. Greg Walden, Kurt Schrader and Peter DeFazio and outlines a plan by which the state would take control of its public lands from the federal government – and hopefully, rescue southwestern Oregon county budgets in the process.

 

 The plan is currently in draft form.

The plan was part of a larger resources bill that stalled over funding issues, and Gov. John Kitzhaber is convening a stakeholder’s group to reach a new consensus. The OCTCJP is supported by 24 Oregon counties and state and federal legislators.

It isn’t without its detractors, however. Andy Kerr, a conservationist asked to join Kitzhaber’s group, has said the plan is “fatally flawed because it would allow clear-cutting on some federal land.” He said the three environmental groups that have agreed to it on the panel don’t have enough political clout to affect change.

Much of its success could depend on who wins the Presidential election, said Penny Dodge, a DeFazio spokeswoman in Washington, D.C. And consensus is key.

“If the Democrats control the Senate, (Sen. Ron) Wyden will be the chair, and it will be a top priority,” she said. “And the governor’s process could help get the momentum to get the bill going.”

Congress must approve any plan, as well.

Under the terms of the draft plan, a seven-member board would manage 1.49 million of the 2.7 million acres of O&C Railroad Grant lands as O&C Trust lands. Another “large parcel” would be managed as a conservation area and placed under federal protection several pristine areas, including 93 miles of the Rogue River and 15 miles of the Molalla River.

Currently, DeFazio wrote in a memo on his website, taxpayers spend $110 million per year to manage 2.6 million acres of O&C forests. Creating a public trust would save taxpayers  tens of millions of dollars each year by reducing annual federal management costs associated with the management of lands, DeFazio said.

Secure Rural Schools Act funds that have supported rural Oregon counties for more than a decade have ended, although an extension was granted earlier this year. The discontinuation is predicted to result in dire financial straits for affected counties when funds run out next June.

According to an Oregon State University (OSU) study, without these payments, rural counties will lose between 3,000 and 4,000 jobs, business sales will drop an estimated $385 million to $400 million and counties will lose $250 million to $300 million in revenues.

“For counties already near the financial cliff and facing depression-like unemployment, this could be the final blow,” DeFazio wrote on his website.

DeFazio’s proposed plan would create thousands of new jobs in Oregon’s rural communities, according to the Oregon Forests Resources Institute, continue the prohibition on exporting unprocessed logs from federal lands and impose penalties on businesses that send such jobs overseas.

It would allow for permanent timber production primarily on lands that have been previously harvested, thus ensuring a sustainable level of timber and forest products from federal lands to maintain and create jobs in the local timber industry.

It would also provide counties with a sustainable and more predictable level of revenues in perpetuity to support essential county services such as law enforcement, healthcare, schools and transportation.

In a “myth and fact” section attached to DeFazio’s website, some have indicated the plan would serve as a “sweetheart” deal to Oregon counties whose voters refuse to increase property taxes for their own basic services.

DeFazio notes there are constitutional limitations on property tax increases, and said a recent OSU study confirmed that even if counties were able to obtain voter approval to increase property, lodging and real estate taxes, those funds would only make up 8 to 24 percent of the funding gap.

More information can be found at www.defazio.house.gov.