Task force offers its fixes for timber payment losses

SALEM — Counties hard-hit by the loss of federal timber payments should consider raising local taxes while the state presses Congress for a renewal and looks for other long-term solutions, a task force told the governor Monday.

The task force's top recommendation to Gov. Ted Kulongoski out of 54 was to persuade Congress to renew for four more years a program that brought $206 million a year to Oregon in lieu of timber harvests, which have been substantially reduced in recent years because of environmental regulations.

Another $32 million was earmarked for schools in the program.

Congress granted a one-year extension last year but so far has refused another.

The governor said the recommendations by the task force constitute a grossly inadequate stopgap — at best replacing only 6 to 14 percent of the amount that up until now had been appropriated by federal lawmakers.

Some counties are harder hit than others. Josephine County will lose 67 percent, or $12.4 million, in general fund replacement revenue, Douglas County 65 percent ($23.3 million), Curry County 60 percent ($3.7 million) and Coos County $6 million (50 percent).

According to the task force, Jackson County will lose $14.9 million for the general fund (32 percent), not including roads or schools. But Jackson County commissioners began efforts four years ago to reduce expenditures, said Chairman C.W. Smith, a member of the task force.

"We made decisions early on planning for a worse-case scenario," he said. "We're in good shape."

Kulongoski appointed the Task Force on Federal Forest Payments and County Services in December, when the threat of a federal cutoff arose. He conceded his office probably didn't take the warning signals seriously enough.

"I think we were all much more optimistic ... that Congress would approve some reauthorization of federal forest payments," he said.

The loss of $32 million for all Oregon schools equals roughly $58 per pupil per year, according to the Oregon Department of Education. Whether the 2009 Legislature can pick up the slack given the recent flat general fund revenue forecasts remains to be seen.

According to the education agency, three of Jackson County's largest school districts will suffer the following projected losses, based on 2007-08 enrollments:

  • Medford School District, 12,408 pupils, $719,664.
  • Central Point School District, 4,706 pupils, $272,948.
  • Ashland School District, 2,976 pupils, $172,608.

The media event in the governor's office accompanying the report's unveiling produced high fives all around from task force members. They agreed the report signals a new round of cooperation between the state and the local jurisdictions.

"This is the first time in my knowledge that the state and the counties have worked so closely together," said Smith. He had further reason to be happy: as co-chairman of the forestry subcommittee, Smith had two of his key recommendations adopted.

One calls for an immediate increase, from 50 to 75 percent, of payments to counties from O&C lands in 18 Western Oregon counties managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The second recommends the creation of a "Young Adult Conservation Corps" for thinning and other activities promoting forest health on federal lands.

Most of the recommendations centered on increased state funding for state-shared services, such as community corrections, courts and prosecutors, juvenile services, public health, roads and community corrections.

Several others stood out:

  • Increase the state's beer and wine tax, a recurring battle that so far has failed to pass muster in the Legislature. The proposal would dedicate the revenue for mental health and alcohol and drug treatment services. An alternative is giving counties and cities the authority to impose a local liquor surcharge.
  • Allow all transient lodging taxes to be used for "tourism-related" services, including law enforcement, roads and emergency services. Current law requires that 70 percent go for tourism promotion if enacted or increased after July 1, 2003. Revenue potential for hard-hit counties would total $11.2 million to $37.4 million.
  • Counties should take advantage of their ability to enact local option levies, subject to voter approval. Ten counties currently have passed limited duration levies to fund such activities as law enforcement (Linn, Deschutes counties), roads (Polk County) and health and safety services (Benton County).

The task force recommendations will be open for public comment for 60 days. The panel, headed by Tim Nesbitt, Kulongoski's deputy chief of staff, will meet in September to draft a final set of recommendations for the governor and the Legislature.

Don Jepsen is a freelance writer living in Salem. Reach him at djepsen34@yahoo.com.

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