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Oregon senators push for stable funding for counties

A bipartisan group of senators from Oregon, Idaho and Colorado introduced a bill this week to help end the yearly wrangling over federal payments to rural counties.

U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats representing Oregon, joined another Democrat and three Republicans on a bill to reauthorize the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program for 10 years.

“The PILT program is a critical lifeline for rural counties struggling to pay for essential services like law enforcement, jails, mental health and libraries,” Wyden said. “Congress and the federal government have a moral responsibility to provide stable and reliable funding for this important program. Rural counties in Oregon and across America deserve certainty. It’s time to end the financial roller coaster they face each year.”

County governments can’t collect taxes on the federal land within their borders, including Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service land.

The federal payments to local governments are meant to offset that lost revenue.

“Rural communities shouldn’t have to wonder if they will have the resources they need to pay their firefighters, emergency first responders, or law enforcement officials,” Merkley said. “It’s time for Congress to reauthorize the federal support counties need to pay for these critical services on a long-term basis — so families across Oregon and America have the peace of mind they deserve.”

Jackson County received almost $1.9 million in the 2017-2018 fiscal year and more than $1.8 million in the 2018-2019 fiscal year through the program, according to Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan.

The budgeted amount for the current 2019-2020 fiscal year is $833,000, he said.

Of that, 79% goes to the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, Jackson County Community Justice and the District Attorney’s Office. The remainder goes to a variety of other departments and services, Jordan said.

He said the proposed bill extends the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program, but it doesn’t set a level of funding.

“If this act passes, at least we will know a payment will be coming for sure. We just won’t know how much it will be,” Jordan said.

The federal payments fluctuate wildly.

Although funding was close to $2 million in 2018 and 2019 for Jackson County, it sank to $48,631 in 2000, according to federal data.

Funding was at $147,399 in 2008, jumped to $858,090 in 2009 and then fell back to $294,238 the following year, data show.

Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer said budgeting would be easier if counties received stable funding from the federal program.

“It’s uncertain every year what it would amount to,” he said.

Dyer said that instability makes it hard to use the money for a long-term expense, such as hiring a Jackson County Sheriff’s Office deputy or investing in a multiyear program.

Dyer said he has no prediction on whether Oregon senators will be able to win passage of the bill.

“They certainly try to advocate for us here. It makes a lot of sense. But I can’t predict what could happen in D.C.,” he said.

Wyden and Merkley are also in a group of Western senators pushing for more reliable funding through the Secure Rural Schools program. That program provides federal payments to counties to help offset a decline in shared revenue from timber harvests on federal land.

The program has brought about $3 million to $4 million annually to Jackson County for the last three years, according to budget documents.

While Jackson County Commissioners appreciate the funding, Dyer said they would rather see more timber harvests to generate money.

“That meets so many other goals. We’re out in the woods managing forests, reducing fuels and creating jobs. That will always be the preferred way to get revenue, as far as we’re concerned,” Dyer said.

During the 1991-1992 fiscal year, Jackson County’s share of timber revenue was $15.1 million — or about $28 million in today’s dollars, according to this fiscal year’s budget document.

Jackson County’s budget for the current fiscal year is almost $383.6 million.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Oregon's senators want more reliable federal funding that helps pay for law enforcement and other services in Jackson County.{ } [Jackson County Sheriff's Office file photo]