County timber payments stay alive in Congress

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — A one-year extension of federal timber subsidies paid to rural counties has survived conference committee negotiations between the House and the Senate.

A conference report on the transportation bill that contains the money should be signed by late Wednesday and go before Congress for a vote Friday, said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.

The provision put into the Senate transportation bill by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., would distribute $346 million to 700 counties in 41 states.

About $100 million of that would go to Oregon, where timber counties have had to make drastic budget cuts, particularly to public safety, since the Secure Rural Schools Act expired last year. The money is about 5 percent less than final payments sent out last year, and will not arrive until October. Once the extension becomes law, counties can borrow against it.

DeFazio and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said the money would provide important bridge funding for cash-strapped counties while a long-term solution to the declining timber revenues is worked out.

In Lane and Josephine counties, scores of jail inmates have been released because of guard layoffs forced by the loss of federal timber subsidies to public safety budgets. Authorities in those counties said the money would not plug their funding shortfalls and was coming too late to stop cuts already being made.

“This is a $4.5 million fix to a $12 million problem,” Josephine County Commissioner Simon Hare said.

He added the money’s last-minute arrival would confirm to many voters that they did not have to seriously consider raising taxes, because Congress has always come through. Josephine County voters turned down a $12 million public safety levy last month.

With no long-term solution in sight, Hare said he felt it was important not to spend all the money at once, so the county would not be faced with even deeper cuts next year.

Patty Perlow, chief deputy district attorney in Lane County, said the money would be welcome, but it was not arriving in time to prevent the release this week of nearly 100 inmates from the jail.

Secure Rural Schools was enacted in 2000 to make up for declining federal timber revenues shared with counties due to logging cutbacks to protect fish and wildlife habitat. Many counties in rural Oregon have come to rely on the money to fund their criminal justice systems.

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