After years of circling the drain, only to be plucked from fiscal doom by federal timber payment extensions, Oregon's formerly timber-dependent counties are finally facing the inevitable. Lawmakers in Salem are proposing a range of emergency measures to try to help, but in the end, the residents of the hardest-hit counties simply must agree to help themselves.
The saga of the so-called O&C counties is all too familiar to those who have lived in Southern Oregon for any length of time. O&C refers to the Oregon and California Railroad, given huge swaths of land by the federal government in the 19th century to build a railroad and promote settlement and development in rural Western Oregon. The railroad failed and never made good on its part of the deal, so the government took the land back. For decades, the Bureau of Land Management administered logging on the former railroad grant lands, paying the counties half the proceeds.
When logging was curtailed in the 1990s to protect fish and wildlife, O&C proceeds dwindled. Congress kept making payments from the general fund as a safety net, but those payments declined over time and finally ran out.
Jackson County has fared better than most by cutting services and building up reserves — and it enjoys a larger permanent tax rate than Josephine, Curry, Lane and Douglas counties. But even that money won't last forever.
Josephine County, with the state's lowest permanent property tax rate at just 59 cents per $1,000, has turned loose prisoners from its jail and slashed its Sheriff's Office to the bone. Curry County, with a tax rate only 1 cent larger, is asking voters to triple their tax rate to $180 for five years to fund law enforcement. If they say no, Sheriff John Bishop told The Oregonian, "come June 30 there is a very, very good likelihood Curry County won't exist as we know it today."
Josephine and Lane counties have tax measures on the May 21 ballot as well, but voters in both counties have turned down public safety levies in the past.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in Salem have floated a wide range of possible responses, including bills that would let counties declare bankruptcy. One proposal being developed with the governor's office would permit the state to declare a public safety fiscal emergency in a county that went broke, create a body to run the county and even impose an income tax on its residents to fund basic operations and obligations.
Another proposal would skim tax money from all counties to bail out a failing one if the governor declared a fiscal emergency, and would let the secretary of state take over local elections from the county clerk.
Still another would amend the state constitution to let the Legislature ask voters to merge two counties into one. Jackson County would be a likely candidate to prop up Josephine in a merger. But the only way to make that fair to residents of this county would be to force Josephine residents to pay more in taxes.
None of these ideas will go over well with voters in rural counties who distrust government in general and up-state government in particular. But if it comes to that, those voters will have no one to blame but themselves.
Lawmakers in Salem should wait to enact any of the measures until after the results of the May 21 election are determined. And between now and then, legislators from the affected counties must make clear to their constituents that their continued ability to govern themselves may rest on their willingness to pay at least the minimum cost of local government services.