By Jim Moore of the Daily Courier
Josephine County Commissioner Simon Hare is on the record that the county could be broke by November without a new source of revenue.
State Sen. Jason Atkinson, R-Central Point, is convinced that opening federal lands to increases timber harvests will ease a lot of that financial pain.
If logging begins tomorrow, “it will solve the financial problem in about three years,” he said. The jobs such a move would create will provide an immediate boost to local morale, he added.
The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, which compensated 700 counties nationwide for the loss of revenue from declining timber sales on federal land, is scheduled to expire this year.
During the act’s peak, Josephine County received between $12 million and $15 million annually to support general fund operations, in particular public safety.
Atkinson met with Gov. John Kitzhaber in Salem on Thursday to state his case. He was pleased with the meeting. “The governor and I have a good relationship and can be candid with each other,” he said. The two will continue the discussion in a week or two.
Next Tuesday, Atkinson will state his case to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden.
“We have to keep the plight of rural counties on their radar,” Atkinson said. “It sounds simple but it isn’t with everything else on their plates.”
Josephine isn’t the only county facing calamity.
In Curry County, officials have openly discussed the possibility of the county government collapsing. Last month, Hare joined a contingent of officials from other counties who met with Kitzhaber. Atkinson fears a domino effect if even one county goes under.
“The very worst thing is a county going bankrupt and those services being pushed onto another county,” he said. “Josephine County can’t afford to absorb any of those services.”
Atkinson also noted that rural Oregon counties face a unique challenge.
“Some are small population-wise and large geographic-wise, but dominated by federal lands,” he said. “You could triple property taxes and it won’t solve the problem.
“The federal government is really holding us hostage,” Atkinson added. “It all comes back to the fact we have been told we can’t harvest timber.”
The expiring funds are no surprise and Atkinson noted that plenty of people have sought solutions for years. To him, the answer is obvious.
“We’ve studied this to death, now it’s time harvest the timber,” he said.
A possible solution is a bill proposed in Congress in November that would increase logging in some federal forests and conserve other areas. It could also provide jobs for people in rural areas and some think it offers long-term stability for local governments.
It crosses party lines, having been crafted by U.S. Reps. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, and Kurt Schrader D-Canby.
Atkinson said the bottom line is: “If the federal government allows us to harvest timber it will improve morale, allow local mills to operate and produce jobs.”
Now, he said, the state “needs real help from the governor and Sen. Wyden” to persuade the federal government to increase timber harvests, Atkinson concluded.