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Forum examines effects of budget reductions

The top question an Ashland Peace House representative had for state, county and school officials at a public forum Tuesday was why if the United States is the wealthiest country in the world, it is daily "doing terrible damage" with overcrowded classrooms, underfunded emergency management, shrinking food stamp dollars and flocks of people with signs on street corners asking for help.

"People are hurting and we hear about what's going on in Washington in very abstract terms. Debt needs to be addressed but without doing this dreadful damage to our society," said Peace House's Herbert Rothschild, addressing state Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, Jackson County Commissioner C.W. Smith and Brad Earl, chief financial officer of Medford schools, during the RCC-SOU Higher Education Center gathering in Medford.

Each official cited a litany of revenue shortfalls and burdensome regulations and programs that gobbled up money. They then outlined strategies for reining in more spending. Smith suggested creating larger numbers of new jobs by allowing more logging to satisfy China's need to build more homes.

"This huge component is not being tapped now — 3.5 million housing starts in China last year and they told me they'd buy all the wood we can load but we can't provide it because of impediments" from federal environmental regulations, Smith said.

All three officials decried the "unsustainable" drain on revenues from costs of medical care and public employee retirement benefits, with Earl saying that the Medford School District "at our current pace will be broke in 24 months."

No one, Earl added, "is predicting a wild recovery (from the recession); it's going to be slow."

Noting rapidly rising employee and medical costs, Earl said he has compared salaried versus outsourced services and found outsourcing of "noncore" jobs a third cheaper and therefore a good choice for helping get back in the black.

Looming on the horizon, he added, are school closures, teacher layoffs, larger class sizes and cuts in athletics, music and other areas that have been affected previously in hard times.

Rothschild said, "I get so upset seeing people paint with a broad brush in the worst terms trashing people in public service, people who are devoting care and service to the public. Peace House is not interested in partisan efforts. We're interested in people and this must turn around."

Buckley echoed the theme, noting that all levels of government are tied together and shortfalls at the federal level "roll downhill" rapidly to state, county and school budgets.

"I'm so tired of seeing the signs of people on the street saying they're hungry and need help," said Buckley, co-chairman of the Legislature's budget-writing Ways and Means Committee. "I first saw this in the early '80s. We were one of the wealthiest countries, so how did it get to this point? These are not acts of God. ... We did them and we're in extremely troubling times."

America after World War II made a choice to "make a middle class" and did so, said Buckley, but the budget priorities became different a few decades later and by the 1990s "you heard speculation that we've done too good a job and shouldn't pay off the debt too soon because it might hurt markets."

Buckley faulted deregulation of the banking industry, adding that it led to the housing bubble which burst in 2008, depriving the state of $880 million over the past three years.

"If not for the stimulus money," he said, "there's no way we could have funded corrections, courts and schools."

The debate over debt in Congress has "tremendous impact" for Oregon, Buckley said, adding that unless the federal government deals with debt and creates a sustainable budget, it's going to have a major impact statewide, especially with health care, and help for seniors and the poor.

"We're capable of creating a society of people who don't live on the street," he said. "It's policy choices that keep us from doing it."

Smith said that at the county level "the fabric of essential services has denigrated badly" but he said the county has come back and has the healthiest financial reserves of any county in Oregon. As a top priority, he said, the county will maintain public health and safety services.

"We're planning for the future and aren't going to fall off a cliff. We're going to build a new health facility downtown," said Smith. "It's difficult to make decisions. ... It's not done by people who are timid or politically imbalanced, saying the world is flat or round with nothing in between."