Bush cuts, extends payments to counties

By CHRISTIAN KNIGHT

News staff writer

February 11, 2006

When Hood River County Administrator Dave Meriwether read President George W. Bush’s budget proposal on Monday, he was relieved.

Relieved to see the president had recommended the extension of the Secure Rural Schools and Self Determination Act; the 1999 legislation which has helped fund Hood River County’s public works and education systems for the last six years.

And then he was concerned.

Bush’s proposal recommends the decline and eventual extinction of the $1.6 billion the federal government paid to counties containing large tracts of National Forest land from 2000 to 2006. The new plan will reduce the payment amounts — starting at $800 million — to counties for five more years until 2013, when they are fully weaned from the stipends.

Under the current proposal, the legislation would afford $412 million to these counties for fiscal year 2007, compared to $421 million in 2006.

“It’s sort of a good news/bad news kind of thing,” Meriwether said. “There was a lot of discussion whether the authorization would be in there at all. To that extent, it’s good news.”

To fund these shrinking annual payments to counties, the National Forest Service would sell off public land parcels that are either “isolated or inefficient to manage.”

In a Friday morning teleconference call, Mark Rey, United States Department of Agriculture Undersecretary, said the National Forest Service had nominated more than 300,000 publicly owned acres in 2,934 land parcels for sale.

Those parcels are in 34 states.

“We appreciate that conveying public lands out of public ownership is a sensitive issue,” Rey said. “We’d need to sell 150,000 to 200,000 acres to off-set costs.”

Roughly 400 of these nominated acres lie within the Mount Hood National Forest, said Daina Bambe, district ranger for the Zig Zag and Hood River Ranger Districts.

“None in Hood River County,” she said. “And there aren’t any that have critical habitat, riparian, etc. The only ones we identified are isolated, expensive to manage and don’t include any late seccessional reserve habitat. Mostly timberlands.”

The land auction would follow a 30-day public comment period.

At the same time, Hood River and similar counties would return to the original system under which the Mount Hood National Forest devoted 25 percent of its revenue from timber harvest to the county.

County officials won’t know how much less money they’ll have to work with in 2007 and the years following until Congress has amended, accepted or rejected the President’s proposal.

But if Congress approves Bush’s proposal as his administration wrote it, Hood River County and other counties will likely receive about half the Payment to Counties money it has enjoyed since 2000, Rey said.

In 2004, the federal government gave Hood River $2.8 million in lieu of timber harvest receipts it did not receive.

That money has become an integral factor in the budgets of agencies throughout the area.

Two-thirds of it — $1.7 million — helps pave, stripe and construct the county’s roads.

One-third of it — $580,000 — pays for public education. (The money for education goes straight into the state education general fund. And that money is divied up between the counties, thus minimizing the economic burden on the state.)

It accounts for half of public works’ roads budget.

And most of the county’s search and rescue budget.

For this reason, the act’s original co-sponsor, U.S. Reps. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. have devoted much of the past year to convincing fellow members of Congress to reinstate the act in its full capacity.

“I’m pleased to see that the president supports reauthorizing the critical county payments program,” DeFazio said. “But the funding levels are inadequate. Congressman Walden and I have organized a strong, bipartisan coalition in the House that will use the president’s proposal as a start, but we aim to reauthorize and fully fund the program.”

That could be a tough pitch to sell to hundreds of Congressmen from states that never relied on timber sales or this act which compensates for the lack of timber sales.

“It’s an uphill battle,” said Angela Wilhelm, Walden’s press secretary. “You’ve got to educate people as to how important this is. But really — there are programs that benefit just the Northeast, just the Southeast that we might not understand on a first-hand level.”

For now, county administrator Meriwether said, the budget is too volatile to form a contigency plan.

Anything could happen in this legislative session.

“It’s a very difficult thing to do without knowing exactly how many dollars are available,” he said.

If Congress approves the Bush budget as is, the burden of roads, education and services will grow progressively heavier on Hood River County.

Meriwether said residents won’t have to worry about a tax increase.

“It’ll be most noticeable in road maintenance, striping and overlays,” Meriwether said. “Obviously it would have a huge impact on those things.”

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