Rough & Ready Lumber Co. recently revealed plans to close the last sawmill operating in Josephine County. In a county that had 22 sawmills in 1975 and has been declining economically since the 1980s, the announcement was more symbolic than surprising.
But the timing of the bad news shines light on upcoming decisions that will have an even bigger impact on the future of Oregon's timber-dependent rural counties. On May 21, residents of Josephine and Curry counties will decide whether to raise property taxes to avoid further cuts in law enforcement. The importance of the votes resonates far beyond the two counties.
In Salem, legislators, Gov. John Kitzhaber, members of his staff and representatives of state agencies have discussed when and under what circumstances the state might step in to ensure public safety in the counties. Separately, a panel appointed by Kitzhaber continues to explore ways to reach a compromise that would allow more logging on former Oregon & California railroad lands.
In Washington, D.C., efforts to forge a new policy for the O&C lands have stalled in the same gridlock that snares everything in Congress.
Meanwhile, commissioners in Curry and Josephine counties approach May 21 with a mixture of hope and trepidation — not necessarily in equal parts.
Whether you're in Brookings, Grants Pass, Salem or Washington, D.C., this much is clear: Everyone has avoided the problem as long as possible. Regardless of voters' decisions, something needs to happen this year.
"A solution will be found," said Simon Hare, chairman of the Josephine County Board of Commissioners. The only thing left to be determined is what that solution will look like.
The path to an optimal solution begins with voter approval on May 21 of the proposed property tax increases. Josephine County is asking residents to approve a levy, designated for public safety, of $1.48 per $1,000 assessed value. It would raise $9.55 million for the 2013-14 fiscal year. Curry County's levy also is designated for public safety, with rates ranging from $1.84 to $1.97 per $1,000 assessed value depending on location. It would raise about $4.5 million next year.
The planned closure of the Rough & Ready mill underscores the difficulty commissioners and other levy proponents face in convincing voters to raise their taxes. Unemployment is above 11 percent in both counties and there is little reason to expect that to change soon.
Make no mistake, many residents of the counties would have a difficult time paying the increased taxes — even though the counties currently have the lowest property tax rates in the state. But it's equally clear that these tax increases would accomplish something.
Of the two counties, Curry sits closest to the financial cliff. There is increasing agreement among leaders in the county and in Salem that the state will need to provide some type of emergency assistance to ensure adequate law enforcement if the tax levy fails. The looming crisis led both the Republican and Democratic county central committees to endorse the tax levy, something county commission Chairman David Brock Smith said had never happened before.
Hare said Josephine County probably is a year away from that level of hardship, which unfortunately might be leading some residents to believe the county's financial woes are not urgent enough to merit a tax increase.
Yes votes would do more than simply avert disaster. Josephine and Curry county residents have a chance to put pressure on legislators in Salem and Washington to deliver a workable plan for increased logging on the O&C lands. Sen. Ron Wyden, D.-Ore., has said the counties need to increase revenue to show they're willing to be a part of the solution. If voters do that, they will put pressure on Wyden, who is chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, to navigate legislation through the gridlock.
Residents of the two counties also should divorce themselves of the notion that emergency help from the state would come at no cost to them. The methods of assistance have not been determined, but legislators would face justifiable political pressure to receive some type of reimbursement from the counties for services provided.
For almost 30 years, residents of these and other timber counties have hoped for an easy answer when there isn't one. Many in the rest of the state ignored the counties' problems as long as possible.
No one will ignore the election results on May 21.