House approves bill to help struggling timber counties

The Oregon House overwhelmingly passed a bill that allows financially struggling timber counties to use measures other than voter-approved property taxes to raise money for public safety.

The bill went to the Senate for a vote, expected before the end of the day because the legislative session is ending. It passed the House 49-10.

Rural counties that once depended on federal timber revenues have been struggling to pay for sheriff's patrols, jails and prosecutors since a federal safety net expired. Voters in the counties closest to going broke have refused to raise taxes to fill the gap.

The bill, HB 3453, would allow the governor to declare a public safety emergency after consulting with legislators and sheriffs and gives counties the power to impose an income tax, a tax on 911 services or other assessments.

The state would cover half the costs of public safety, and the county half. State police have already stepped up patrols in areas where sheriff's patrols have been diminished.

The bill could only be used in two counties before July 2014, presumably Curry and Josephine, the two closest to going broke.

Josephine County Commissioner Cherryl Walker said she was not certain the board would be willing to impose some kind of taxes or fees if the bill passes, because there have been a lot of changes to the legislation since the last time the board discussed it. Three suggestions for allowing counties to augment their revenues without charging taxes were rejected.

She added that any new taxes or fees would only be authorized for 18 months. Josephine County's charter prohibits it from imposing an income tax, so new revenue would have to come from increasing the 911 tax already imposed by the state on telephone bills, or some kind of fees for services.

"The state is now trying to provide a safety net for us to come up with a solution," she said. "This is not the solution."

Leaders in Curry and Josephine Counties are still holding out hope that Congress will approve some kind of increase in logging on federal lands to increase timber revenues.

The one person speaking on the bill on the House floor was Rep. Bill Kennemer, R-Oregon City. He said he thinks it gives too much authority to the governor and he'd rather have a special session in the Legislature to figure out how to help the counties.

— Associated Press

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