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Funding cuts could slash county services

Federal timber money could dry up in 2007; loss would be &

36;23 million annually

Jackson County officials will hit the panic button in early February if President Bush doesn't include a continuation of federal timber money in his budget.

If it is in the president's budget, we have a good chance of getting it through, said county Commissioner Dave Gilmour. If it's not in the president's budget, we will have an uphill battle.

The loss of about &

36;23 million annually, which represents a big chunk of the county's &

36;72 million general fund budget, could eventually lead to the closure of libraries, sharply curtail rural sheriff's patrols, limit the number of prisoners at the jail, cut back on health services and increase fees at county-owned parks.

If it doesn't go through, we will be in a world of hurt, said Gilmour.

— The money comes from a bill passed by Congress in 2000 that gives revenues to counties that once were heavily dependent on the timber industry. The allocation runs out in 2007 unless it is extended.

The president's budget is expected to be released on Feb. 2. Gilmour said no one will be surprised if Bush leaves the timber money out of the budget given the escalating cost of the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina and the rising national debt.

However, with about 700 counties throughout the country dependent on the money, there will be a lot of effort and lobbying to get it back into the budget, he said.

Gilmour said the county won't know until the end of September or October whether the timber dollars will survive federal budget battles.

Jackson County's library system might appeal to voters to approve a special district in the November 2006 election.

The sheriff's department also could ask voters for help in the next few years.

If we lose that money, we will have to form a law-enforcement district, said Sheriff Mike Winters.

Winters said residents of Jackson County could face some tough decisions in the next few years over how to pare back law enforcement if the timber money dries up.

Patrols might have to be sharply curtailed or the number of inmates in the jail would have to be reduced.

Winters said closing off part of the jail would be a setback after the sheriff's department fought to gain more bed space recently and also rents jail space in other Oregon counties.

Previously the jail was forced to release up to 100 prisoners a week because of overcrowding. Winters said that amount is now down to 20 or fewer.

Before going to voters, Winters said he would hold town hall meetings and gather reactions from the public.

Hank Collins, director of health and human services, said his department receives about &

36;2.2 million of its &

36;45 million budget from the county general fund.

The loss of that &

36;2.2 million would have a big impact on the health care programs in this county.

He said &

36;1 million goes for health care for prisoners in the county jail.

Another &

36;500,000 is used to track communicable diseases such as meningitis and tuberculosis to make sure everyone who has come in contact with a sick person is notified and treated. Basically, this is the raison d'?tre of our whole public health system, said Collins.

Local nonprofits such as Court-Appointed Special Advocates of Jackson County, addiction recovery centers and other organizations that provide assistance would lose &

36;500,000 total.

In addition, &

36;100,000 that supports veterans and another &

36;100,000 for the animal shelter might be cut.

Many of these other services would be viewed as being very critical to the community, said Collins.

Gilmour said it is difficult to predict whether the timber money will make it into the federal budget.

I think at this point it's a little better than an even chance of getting it, he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail Funding cuts could slash county services"dmann@mailtribune.com.

About timber-funds allocation:There is a long history behind the federal government's decision to send money to counties that once relied heavily on a strong timber industry. When the federal government took over the ownership of what were formerly railroad lands in the 1930s, it agreed to share timber revenues with the counties. But over the years, economic and environmental factors have changed the timber industry, reducing the amount of timber harvested. Because of reductions in timber revenue and a national recession, Jackson County laid off half its employees in 1980. In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed a law that provides money to these counties that once depended on timber for their economy. The law runs out in 2007.