With timber payments gone, counties struggle

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Friday, August 01, 2008

STATEWIDE Josephine County already has lost almost half its county employees and all its libraries, and county commission chairman Dave Toler is worried that public safety could be next. Barring a bailout over the next year, Toler estimates Josephine County will be able to prosecute less than one-tenth of the criminal cases it normally pursues, falling from 5,300 a year to just 500.

“What kind of economy are we going to have if we don’t have a criminal justice system?” he asks.

The loss of the federal forest subsidies that have kept Oregon’s rural timber counties afloat since 2000 has left Josephine County teetering. Until July 1, two-thirds of county services there were funded by the feds. That safety net is gone and replacing it will not be simple. Dozens of counties are cutting back.

The counties that were hardest hit,  Josephine and Curry, pay the lowest property taxes in Oregon, about 60 cents per $1,000, less than a quarter of the state average. Bringing those rates up to par is easier said than done since it would require voter approval. Josephine, Curry and Lane counties all tried to boost taxes in 2007; all attempts were soundly defeated.

With no new revenues to replace the lost timber subsidies, counties have moved from selectively harvesting jobs and programs to clear-cutting them. Lane County chopped 93 public safety employees and closed its forest work camp. Douglas County eliminated 59 jobs and cut library hours. “Anything that’s not mandated, we’ll be cutting,” says Curry County commissioner Georgia Nowlin.

Two ideas have surfaced to avoid further erosion. Douglas County commissioner Doug Robertson has proposed selling off 1.2 million acres of federal forestland in Oregon for an estimated $5 billion and setting aside 1.2 million acres for wilderness.

But selling off public land would be a tough sell in Oregon. A more likely solution calls for new public safety districts, which would fund basic services into perpetuity. Josephine County plans to put two such measures on the ballot this fall, and Toler has already begun stumping for them.

“If we don’t have basic services who’s going to come here?” he asks. “And who’s going to leave?”                             

BEN JACKLET


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