Rural timber county payments remain alive

GRANTS PASS — A glimmer of hope has arisen in Congress for extending federal payments to rural timber counties, but even if the money comes, it would fall far short of what's needed to stave off painful cuts.

The House this week passed a short-term extension of transportation funding, raising the possibility it could be melded with a Senate version that has an amendment extending $106.4 million in payments to Oregon timber counties for one more year.

Sen. Ron Wyden's office said as long as no one in the House actively opposes it, county payments should be in the final bill.

"We're counting on our House colleagues to ensure that doesn't happen," said Jen Hoelzer, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Democrat.

Timber counties across the country have been getting a subsidy since 2000 to make up for reductions in their share of federal timber revenues that plummeted when logging on national forests was cut more than 80 percent to protect habitat for fish and wildlife. The subsidies now have run out.

The Senate measure would distribute $346 million to 700 counties in 41 states.

The amount represents a 5 percent reduction in the 2011 payments under the Secure Rural Schools Act and the Payment In Lieu of Taxes program.

In Josephine County, which has long depended on the payments, county Commissioner Simon Hare said the payments would cover just a third of the $12 million budget shortfall the county has to plug by the end of June.

Congress is unlikely to decide before May 15, when Josephine County residents are voting on whether to quadruple property taxes — the lowest in the state. If the four-year funding package fails, the county plans to lay off 125 people in the criminal justice system and other county services.

"We can't deal with what-ifs," said Hare. "This is an election year. These guys are out in their districts. We don't expect Congress to do a whole lot on our issue."

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., hopes a conference committee will soon approve the timber payments extension, said spokesman Andrew Whelan.

"In the meantime, he will look for other vehicles and continue working on the long-term solution," Whelan said in an email.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said a long-term transportation bill is still needed, but he was happy the short-term extension was approved.

"The House finally found the path out of dysfunction junction on transportation," he said in a statement.

In Lane County, the largest recipient of timber payments in Oregon, the general fund is falling by 25 percent, forcing sharp cuts to criminal justice that could eliminate the county morgue and investigation of routine deaths as well as positions for deputies and prosecutors. Even if timber payments are restored, they only cover a third of the budget gap.

The Register-Guard reported that deputy state medical examiner Dr. Dan Davis sent an email to mortuaries, health care providers and police warning that planned cuts would spell the end of signed death certificates in routine deaths, creating a nightmare for families trying to bury the dead and settle estates.

Lane County District Attorney Alex Gardner said cuts going into effect May 19 will mean the loss of two full-time and five part-time medical death investigators, a part-time morgue attendant and autopsy supplies.

With no county support, Davis would be transferred, forcing Lane County to send bodies to other counties for autopsies, Oregon Medical Examiner Karen Gunson told the newspaper.

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