Trapped Oregon timber counties look to Legislature

GRANTS PASS — Rural counties desperate to keep their jails open and sheriff's patrols on the road if a federal timber-related subsidy goes away are hoping the Legislature will come to the rescue with a stopgap funding plan.

But lawmakers have no idea where the money would come from, given the state's budget crisis, and the best counties can expect may be loans instead of grants.

"With our budget situation, I guarantee you there isn't any money," said Rep. Wayne Krieger, R-Gold Beach, co-chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

With prospects uncertain for renewing the millions of dollars in federal payments to counties that were initially designated to make up for diminished logging revenues, a few rural counties in Oregon are scrambling to stave off bankruptcy and with it the prospects that the lights could go out in their sheriff's offices and jails. Curry and Josephine counties are generally considered closest to the brink. "We won't be the first ones to go broke," said Dwight Ellis, commissioner in Josephine County, where sheriff's patrols only cover 20 hours a day and the jail operates at reduced capacity. "Our concern is really how much of a public safety system we're going to be able to put out there."

For a century, the federal government has shared a percentage of the money made from selling timber on national forests and other federal lands with the counties where the timber is located.

Since logging dropped drastically in the 1990s to protect fish and wildlife, a series of temporary safety nets has been authorized by Congress to give counties time to find new sources of revenue.

The latest of these, a four-year appropriation authorized in 2008, makes its final payments at the end of this year after sharing $3.3 billion with more than 700 counties in 39 states around the country.

President Obama has included a provision to renew the program in his budget, and Oregon's Democratic senators want to hold him to it, but the Republican-controlled House is considered a longshot for approval.

Even before the Great Recession, tourism and retirement were not filling the economic gap. Many rural timber counties have around 13 percent unemployment, making it tough to ask voters to pay more.

Coos County was already suffering from the collapse of timber and fishing, and is hurting even worse in the Great Recession, said County Commissioner Bob Main.

"In the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s, anybody who wanted to work had a job," he said. "Now we've got 30 percent of adults on public assistance and more than 30 percent of children below the poverty line."

House Bill 2475 would set up a process for the governor to declare a public safety services emergency if a county can't provide some minimum level of sheriff's patrols and jail capacity. The idea is to provide bridge funding to avoid shutting down sheriff's departments if Congress comes through with some form of funding for timber counties. It would give counties a chance to put up a levy for funding sheriff's departments.

If it doesn't pass, counties would be on their own. Even if it does pass, no one has figured out what to do if Congress doesn't restore the timber payments, or if voters turn down a tax hike.

Voters in Curry, Josephine and Klamath Counties in Southern Oregon all turned down public safety levies last year, and none of their jails have the money to operate at full capacity.

"I believe if we present this picture to the public and at the same time make every cut that we can in spite of how much it's going to hurt, then I am cautiously optimistic the public will finally see the light," said Curry County Commissioner Bill Waddle.

With room for just 64 inmates, Klamath County Jail has turned into a revolving door, with one suspect piling up 21 different arrests for failing to appear for court, said Sheriff Tim Evinger.

"We know property crimes are out of control and that we have police officers that are talking with perpetrators and suspects on the street, and those individuals are saying, 'Go ahead and take me to jail. I know I'm not staying,'" Evinger said.

Since receiving a new budget forecast and shifting four patrol deputies to the jail, Evinger plans to open a second pod at the jail next week, doubling capacity to 116 so they can get more suspects off the street.

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