Rural counties need a long-term solution on timber payments

2012-07-06 Ashley Bach

Congress just approved a one-year extension of timber payments to rural counties, but you’ll have to excuse local residents for not cheering. The timber payments ran out back in September, so in the Northwest, the massive budget cuts have already happened and a one-year extension won’t help matters much.

In Lane County, Ore., the sheriff has already had to watch nearly 100 inmates — including three homicide suspects — leave his jail in recent weeks because the county doesn’t have the money to pay for enough jail staff.

The third homicide suspect released is Jason A. Manske, 31, accused of leaving the scene June 6 in the death of 18-year-old Lane Community College student Bryson Krissie, who died after being hit by truck. Manske, already with a record of drug-related offenses, now faces criminally negligent homicide and hit-and-run charges.

(Sheriff Tom) Turner spoke to Krissie’s parents Thursday who wanted to know why, 12 days after the memorial service for their fallen son, Manske was being set free before trial.

“I told them I’m as outraged as they are,” Turner said Friday. “I wanted to assure them if I had the choice I would not have done this. There’s nothing to hide here. This is catastrophic on a society or a community.”

Lane County will receive $10 million because of the one-year extension of timber payments, but most of that money will go to roads or to help with future revenue shortfalls, not to round up the inmates.

The reaction to the one-year extension was the same in smaller counties, like Coos Bay, Ore.

“I’m grateful for any help,” said Coos County Commissioner Bob Main. “It is not the solution whatsoever.”

The $1.8 million his county will get from Friday’s bill, Main said, is “a far cry from the full payment of $5.8 million we used to get.”

In Washington’s Clallam and Jefferson counties, the money is welcome but will come too late to have an impact on this year’s budget.

All funds in Clallam County will go to the roads department, to the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office and to rebuild trails, (said Jim Jones, Clallam County administrator).

(Jefferson County Administrator Philip Morley) said the funds in his county will go into the general fund to pay for essential services.

The Secure Rural Schools funds are expected to arrive in December and the Payments in Lieu of Taxes funds in June.

“It’s too late to spend it this year. It rolls into the 2013 budget,” Morley said.

The muted impact of the one-year extension highlights the deeper financial problems with rural counties across the West. While Congress needs to come up with a long-term solution to increase the timber harvest and create more revenue, the counties need to diversify their economies beyond a timber industry that will never reach the peak harvests of the past.

Here’s how the Eugene Register-Guard editorial board reacted to the news:

(In the next couple years), hopefully, either Congress will have approved a plan to end the impasse in O&C forests in Western Oregon and provide a steady flow of revenue to rural counties that can replace lost federal payments — or the counties will have figured out on their own how to generate the revenues needed to pay for public safety, roads and other essential services.

That would be a welcome revision of what has become a tiresomely familiar script.