October BLM funds for county finally here

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer April 15, 2014 07:55 pm

The announcement that SRS funds have been disbursed to the state’s O&C counties has many again thinking Curry County’s elected leaders are crying wolf about the financial status of the county.

But the money being released this spring — $1.205 million, $42,967 more than County Accountant Gary Short calculated — is the same money the federal government announced in October it would be distributing.

On Oct. 2, 2013, Congress passed a one-year reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act as part of the Helium Stewardship Act to allocate some $39 million to Oregon’s 18 O&C counties.

“As far as O&C money, this is the same old stuff we were told we were going to get back in 2013,” Short said, adding that it is not a second round of federal funds.

Curry County faced a $3.5 million shortfall last year, but was able to make budget by spinning off departments to nonprofit organizations, not filling positions as they became vacant, cutting operating hours and other expenditures and taking $1.65 million from the road fund.

The state legislature enacted legislation last year that allowed distressed counties to take money from their road funds, but only for Sheriff’s Office deputy patrols. That law sunsets next year. Other attempts to increase revenue to county coffers — primarily property tax hikes — have been unsuccessful at the polls.

Short said the county Monday received $99,301 in Title III funds, which are restricted to use in search and rescue operations on federal forest lands. Another $1,205,796 from the Bureau of Land Management Monday was also received for use in the county’s general fund — the coffer that was hardest hit when federal timber subsidies ended in 2012.

Since then, other appropriations have been made at the federal level to help O&C counties with their respective shortfalls. Bills helping O&C counties were attached to the helium, transportation and farm bills this year, but County Commissioner David Itzen said there is no legislation on the table right now that indicates more will be forthcoming.

“What I’m hearing is, ‘no chance in hell,’ or something like that,” Short said. “It is extremely unlikely. No one has any hopes there will be any tagging on to any bill to get an extension. Having said that, who knows? You can hope for it.”

When the announcement was made in late October that Curry County and Oregon’s other 17 O&C counties would be receiving federal funding for 2014, there was no guarantee that money would either be available or be distributed in the amounts originally announced.

The announcement this week of $2.4 million arriving in Curry County had some people thinking the county is getting yet another bailout.

It even had Jim Relaford, a county commissioner candidate, confused.

“Once more, the county gets a last-minute reprieve from having to face actual budgeting,” he wrote on Facebook Friday. “I have ambivalent feelings about this money. Some of it is certainly needed for essential services, but with this windfall our commissioners are once again off the hook. I hope we will take this opportunity to do the necessary restructuring because there will be a time when this ‘manna’ from heaven will not be there.”

In a sense, Relaford is correct.

The county received the $1.2 million for the general fund Monday. And today or tomorrow, Short expects to see $2.4 million.

That money is U.S. Forest Service funds, and all of it is dedicated to specific funds and cannot be used as discretionary money. Just over $1.56 million will go to the road fund, $522,000 to schools and $172,000 to search and rescue.

“It’s hard to figure out how much is really there and how much is really not there,” Relaford said. “What’s concerning to me is, here we are with $35 million in the road fund, so why do we have more road money coming? My ignorance is showing, but these are the questions I get, and I can’t find anyone who can answer them yet.”

“That’s a reality,” Short said of the confusion. “Whether people understand or are just making noise, I don’t know.”

Regardless, the $1.2 million that goes to the general fund will help the county get through the end of the next budget cycle, at the end of June 2015, Short said.

“Then we’re down to scraping the lint,” he added. “There’s still going to be money in the county, but most of it’s road money and more or less off limits, and perhaps some Title III money and other funds with restrictions for dedicated purposes. Basically, it’s going to be whatever its in that restricted road fund (taking road funds for road deputies). It might come down to winging it, or getting an opinion from the state.”