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County's share of future timber payments uncertain

President Barack Obama's proposed five-year extension of county timber payments would provide a short-term financial benefit to Jackson County and other former timber-dependent counties. But county officials say no one knows for certain how much that benefit would total.

The funds, part of the president's $3.8 trillion budget plan announced Monday, would be used to pay counties that formerly were dependent on revenues from federal timber harvests, a source dried up by environmental regulations and a staggering economy.

The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000, co-authored by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has produced $3 billion in payments for 700 counties in 41 states since it was signed into law. Oregon counties have received $1.6 billion in that time, but now the act has expired and must be renewed for the payments to continue.

The 2012-13 federal budget year starts Oct. 1. If the Obama proposal were approved, participating counties would share $294 million the first year, with amounts declining by 10 percent in each of the four following years. (A story in Tuesday's Mail Tribune listed incorrect amounts.)

For the current fiscal year, the federal payments amounted to about $308 million, of which Jackson County received a little more than $5 million. But officials said the impact to Jackson County in the proposed budget depends on how the funds are distributed. Legislation passed in 2008 extending the act to 2012 also broadened the number of counties nationwide eligible for funding, which reduced the amount available to Oregon counties.

"There are a lot of steps to go through," said Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan. "(Obama's) talked about a dollar amount. He hasn't talked about how those funds will be distributed."

A number of Oregon counties are in serious financial straits, in part because of the loss of the timber harvest funding. Without a reauthorization of the federal payments, some counties say they would have to cut services to the bone. Curry County has said it may be forced to cease operating.

Jackson County, however, began building a rainy-day fund when timber harvest receipts began to decline and has remained among the most financially stable counties in the state. Jordan said if the reauthorization goes through, any money received from timber payments would go into the rainy-day fund.

"So if we don't get (it) this year, we're not going to make any drastic changes," Jordan said. "We take it and put it in the bank."

Jackson County Board of Commissioners Chairman Don Skundrick said that even if the funds are approved, they're a temporary fix.

"While this would be really welcome news to some counties that are in extreme danger financially, I would hope this wouldn't give the voters a false sense of security in that we can always go to Uncle Sam with our hands out," Skundrick said.

Skundrick added he'd prefer to see fewer environmental restrictions and more natural resource management for Oregon counties with timber resources, which he said would help provide a long-term solution to the funding crisis.

"We're not going to turn the money away," he said. "We just hope folks realize that one has to live within their means."

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at rpfeil@mailtribune.com