Counties offered one-year safety net

Dealing a blow to Jackson County, the U.S. Congress dropped a five-year timber payments program that would have prevented cuts in roads, libraries and law enforcement and instead opted for a one-year extension.

The compromise agreement would provide 700 timber-dependent counties with $425 million for one year as part of a $120 billion package that will pay for the war in Iraq through September. Jackson County received about $23 million under an older law that expired last year, but officials estimate the new legislation will provide less than the previous amount.

The bill doesn't have the timetable for troop withdrawal that President Bush vetoed earlier this month and doesn't include a Senate-approved $5 billion extension of the federal timber payments law through 2011.

Congress is expected to vote on the bill today and the president could sign it as early as Friday.

Jackson County Commissioner C.W. Smith welcomed the additional money, but said it won't make much of a difference in restoring cuts to libraries, public safety or roads.

"I was proceeding as if I were never going to get the money," he said.

At this point he doesn't know how much to expect from the compromise bill, but he wants to consider paying down what remains of a $38.9 million bond measure voters approved in 2000 to build new libraries.

Smith said he and other commissioners will meet with the county's budget committee to discuss what to do with the money.

The county will continue to work with local communities to see if some libraries could be reopened, setting the stage to potentially ask voters to approve a special district in 2008.

In the meantime, Smith said the county will have to show voters that a "good faith" effort has been made in reducing the libraries' budget.

Jackson County is weathering the cutback in federal timber dollars better than surrounding counties. Josephine County has closed its libraries and is preparing to make sharp cuts in law enforcement. Curry County is seeking a disaster declaration from the state because it has lost most of the money that pays for local government.

Sen. Ron Wyden's office sharply criticized the reduced funding in the bill.

"For several years, the Bush administration has refused to fund the county payments and led rural counties to the edge of a cliff," said Wyden spokesman Josh Kardon. "As of today the house leadership seems content to push the counties off that cliff."

Kardon, however, praised the efforts of Congressman Greg Walden, who, accompanied by Wyden, met last week with President Bush to drum up support for the county payments program.

Wyden will continue trying to attach a five-year renewal of the money to other legislation created in the Senate.

Andrew Whelan, a spokesman for Walden, said that it is unfortunate that there isn't more money in the bill, but added, "It is still very, very good news."

Having a one-year extension buys some time for counties while Walden and other legislators work for a complete reauthorization.

Whelan said it was difficult to get the money included along with the war funding, but he doesn't expect any further opposition by the president.

"This was a very Hail Mary sort of thing to get it done," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or

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