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Wyden slams BLM error in counties' smaller payment

GRANTS PASS — Oregon counties already struggling to cope with declining federal timber revenues will be getting less than they expected from a federal safety net program due to a calculation error, a slip-up criticized Wednesday by a member of the state's congressional delegation.

The 18 so-called O&C Counties of Western Oregon learned in June that they will be sharing only $40 million in their final payment under a federal safety net program. They had been told it would be $51.6 million.

U.S. Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Andrea Nelson said the earlier, larger estimate was not a formal calculation and the error was identified while going over the budget for fiscal year 2012, Nelson said. She said the formula used to calculate the final payments was a new one to the agency.

Nelson said the $40 million figure was published last March in a budget document, but Rocky McVay of the Association of O&C Counties said counties did not find out until June, by which time they had already prepared their budgets. He said now they will have to go back and cut even more.

Wyden, D-Ore., had harsh words for BLM Director Bob Abbey for both the error and not telling the counties sooner.

"The counties are holding the bag for a BLM error," Wyden said afterward. "To me, the agency ought to be looking at ways to help reduce some of the suffering that is due to their unwillingness to communicate in a timely way what is going on."

Abbey told Wyden during the hearing that there was little to be done after the fact, since the amount of money was based on a formula set by law.

The Secure Rural Schools Act authorized five annual payments to timber counties around the country that have seen declining revenue coming from national forests. The 18 O&C Counties in Oregon get additional money because they also received a share of revenues from timber cut on lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Douglas County, which gets more O&C money than any of the counties, will see a $3.6 million reduction, which amounts to about one-eighth of the general fund, said County Commissioner Doug Robertson.