Oregon Counties Face Cuts As Timber Funds Dry Up
Hundreds of counties in dozens of states have less money to pay for schools, roads, health clinics and other basic services because of the loss of timber payments. In the 1990s, battles over the spotted owl slowed logging in the Pacific Northwest to a trickle. For the next two decades, once timber-dependent counties in Oregon and elsewhere came to rely on payments from the federal government to make up for lost revenues. Now, the law authorizing those payments has expired. Oregon Public Broadcasting's David Nogueras reports.
ARI SHAPIRO, host: Seven hundred rural counties across the U.S. are about to lose billions of dollars in federally funded timber payments. Congress started paying the money a decade ago to make up for cutbacks in logging due to the endangered species act. Now that Congress has become more budget conscious, the money has dried up. As Oregon Public Broadcasting's David Nogueras reports, some rural counties are bracing for the loss of money by cutting government services.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)
DAVID NOGUERAS: Young children and their parents are waiting to see a clinician at a childhood immunization clinic in western Oregon's Douglas County. In recent years, administrators here have had to cut back on staff and hours. County health administrator Peggy Madison says with the last timber payment scheduled to come in next month, this year's cuts have been significantly worse.
PEGGY MADISON: We've had three ten percent cuts over three years in our budget, and then a 35 percent cut this past year. So, making those cuts means we're making cuts in services that people really depend on.
NOGUERAS: Besides cuts to hours at the clinic, Madison's department has also been forced to slash hours at satellite offices in more isolated parts of the county - clinics that deal with everything from HIV to basic health services. The money came from something called the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act. In Oregon, counties can use that money for broad purposes, elsewhere it's limited to education and transportation spending.
DOUG ROBERTSON: What does it mean when the Secure Rural School Act ends? It means that support for county services, to a large extent, certainly in Douglas County, also ends.
NOGUERAS: Doug Robertson is a Douglas County commissioner. He says, in the past, timber payments have accounted for close to 70 percent of his county's entire budget. Those payments began to dwindle in 2008 when the law was reauthorized with less money than before.
ROBERTSON: We can't deficit spend, so we've been cutting as the payments have been diminishing over the last three years. For instance, Douglas County - we have cut slightly over 200 budgeted positions out of our budget.
NOGUERAS: Douglas County is preparing to go from receiving close to $20 million last year, all the way to zero. The county's problems are by no means unique. Democrat Peter Defazio represents Oregon's Fourth District in the U.S. House of Representatives. He underscored the urgency of the situation during a House Natural Resources Subcommittee hearing last month.
Representative PETER DEFAZIO: I just had one county notify the governor of my state, Curry County, that if their initiative on the ballot to increase property taxes fails, and the last one failed by a margin of three to one, that essentially the county will have to dissolve.
GEORGE RHODES COMMISSIONER, CURRY COUNTY, OREGON: The governor doesn't like us to use the term bankrupt.
NOGUERAS: That's Curry County commissioner, George Rhodes.
OREGON: The reality is in June of 2013, if we have the same general fund budget, we would be short of making it by a little over $300,000.
NOGUERAS: While Oregon received the largest share of the Secure Rural Schools money, about $2 billion over the last ten years, 40 other states are losing funding, as well. There seems to be consensus among Republicans and Democrats in Congress, that something should be done, but what that something is, isn't yet clear. The U.S. Senate might consider a bill that would reauthorize payments to counties for five years and reduced levels. In the House, legislators are crafting a plan that would raise money by allowing for more logging on national forest land. For NPR News, I'm David Nogueras in Bend, Oregon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.