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County still misspending federal aid

Douglas County is at it again. And Douglas County commissioners are resisting a newspaper’s request for public records detailing how much money they spent doing it.

The money is from federal safety-net payments designed to help counties adjust to the loss of income from federal timber harvests. What better use of the money than to travel to Washington, D.C., to lobby for increased timber harvests?

The Oregonian reports that Douglas County commissioners spent at least $43,000 on lobbying trips using the federal aid, part of the Secure Rural Schools program created by legislation sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden in 2000.

Most of the money from that program goes for roads and schools. But some of it is discretionary. Until 2008, the discretionary portion could be spent for educational purposes, including after-school programs. The commissioners have said their trips to Washington were “educational,” not lobbying.

Two years ago, The Oregonian revealed that Douglas County was spending some of those pre-2008 dollars to make “educational” videos promoting salvage logging after wildfires. Amazingly, a county that was so strapped it had to close its libraries managed to hang on to federal aid for nine years, and then spend it on pro-logging videos.

Now, in 2019, that money is apparently still being used — this time for lobbying trips — even though federal guidelines require unspent money to be returned. The Oregonian says the commissioners have allocated $30,000 a year for lobbying trips, but it’s not clear how much has been spent.

That’s because Douglas County officials have declined to comply with the newspaper’s request for receipts from the trips, demanding payment of nearly $2,000 for what they say are 170 pages of records. The county’s proposed charges, which include 35 hours of a staff member’s time at more than $34 an hour, plus review by a department head and an attorney, total more than $11 per page.

These are travel receipts. Presumably they show expenses for such esoteric items as airfare, lodging and meals (some of the few receipts released so far were for Uber rides in the Capital). It should take minutes, not hours, to find the expense records and print them out. As expenditures of public money by elected officials on public business, they are unquestionably public record, and little or no legal review should be necessary.

Meanwhile, Wyden and Sen. Jeff Merkley have proposed making the Secure Rural Schools program permanent. That shouldn’t happen until this kind of misuse of the money is ended once and for all.

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