SALEM — Providing more state support for mental health and giving counties flexibility in raising auto registration fees were among ideas discussed Thursday by a governor's task force to help offset the loss of some $275 million a year in federal timber payments to Oregon counties.
The panel, chaired by Tim Nesbitt, a top aide to Gov. Ted Kulongoski, is rushing to meet a June deadline for a final draft that will go to the 2009 session. The committee's revenue group must still weigh in on proposals for new taxes and fees. That group meets on May 12.
Public Law 106-393, authorized by the Congress in 2000, provided federal payments for counties nationwide suffering from declining timber harvests on federal lands.
Past efforts to renew the in-lieu payments program, even if only for a few years, have largely failed. The Congress did pass a one-year extension, but that runs out in September of this year. New bills in Congress were described as being "on life support" in a recent Association of Oregon Counties newsletter.
"A one-year extension in the House is high-centered," Eric Schmidt, an AOC spokesman, told the panel. Chances for a four-year phase-out could pass the Senate, he said, "but it has a bull's-eye on it if it reaches the House."
Some counties — most notably Josephine and Curry counties — will suffer disproportionately, according to John Krawczyk, Yamhill County administrator hired by AOC to assess the impact on each county.
"(Josephine) County's property tax revenue is so low that there is no base to fall back on," he said. And general fund reserves are not adequate to support any reasonable level of operation, he added.
"Basically, the last person in the courthouse will have to turn out the lights," he said.
Several other local jurisdictions, including Jackson and Douglas counties, may be able to sustain reduced operations for a limited time because of strong general fund reserves, Krawczyk noted. But when these have been depleted, he added, they could find themselves in a difficult situation.
Jackson County Commissioner C. W. Smith, a member of the governor's task force, disputed the assessment for his jurisdiction in an interview.
"We're still working with numbers, and we may not be in as bad a shape as we anticipated," Smith said. He declined to speculate on whether the county will come up with different revenue projections.
"We should know shortly," he said.
Smith said the county retrenched early, eliminating about 185 positions and adopting a frugal spending program. "We're set through the next two budget cycles," he said. He said, however, that the fiscal suggestions for the Legislature would be a welcome benefit.
Among the recommendations that will be included in the task force report are:
- Give counties more flexibility to raise auto registration fees without prior authorization by the voters. Any increases would be subject to referral by the electorate for a vote.
- Increase state funding for community mental health and addiction recovery programs, including adequate dollars to cover administrative costs.
- Extend Oregon State Police responsibility and funding for medical examiner services in Southern Oregon counties, including Jackson County, which finance these services from their budgets.
- Increase state funding to allow counties to hire more assistant district attorneys, and increase general fund support for drug courts from $1.2 million to $7 million a biennium.
- Support a federal change to allow the state to collect unpaid fines and fees from tax refunds and enact enabling legislation at the state level.
- Increase the per capita funding formula for local public health agencies to provide an additional $25 million a biennium.
A number of other suggestions will receive further scrutiny, including a recommendation that the Legislature increase beer and wine taxes to support alcohol and drug treatment, mental health and developmentally disabled services.
Don Jepsen is a freelance writer living in Salem. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.