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EDITORIAL: The best of bad choices

Whether they like it or not, Curry County may become the test case for a new law that allows the governor to declare an emergency in counties where citizens refuse to pay for minimum public services,

The county commission will be back on the ballot in November with a $3.2 million, three-year tax measure designed to keep its jail open and six deputies on patrol.

The proposed measure actually involves more money per year than the measure voted down last May, but it is for a shorter term: $3.2 million over three years, or a little over $1 million a year, as compared to $4 million over five years in the previous measure, about $800,000 a year.

The measure is necessary as a result of Congress’ failure to restore county payments designed to compensate counties for the federally owned lands within their borders — lands that no longer generate property taxes to help sustain county services.

We continue to maintain this money is a contractual obligation between the federal government and the counties. It was originally a percentage of timber receipts and later a flat payment after Endangered Species Act protections drastically cut timber harvests on federal land.

In Oregon, about 53 percent of all land is owned by the federal government (the darkest portions of the map above). Only Nevada (85 percent), Alaska (69 percent) and Utah (57 percent) have larger federally acreage.

That said, excluding Hawaii, every state in the western third of the United States has a large share of its land mass in public ownership. The smallest share is 30 percent in Montana.

Yet the counties in which these large federal land tracts are located are required to provide public services to the entire county, including the federal part.

The counties have come to rely on those funds for basic services. Originally, they were dedicated to schools and roads — two vital services for rural counties, where most federal land is located.

Good roads are critical to getting crops and other products to market. Good schools are vital in ensuring a trained workforce and helping to lift people out of poverty.

When tax reform handed responsibility for most school funding over to the state, the biggest beneficiary of timber receipts became the road departments. And when those funds went away this year, those road departments took the biggest hit, except in O&C counties like Curry, where almost all county revenues came from federal payments.

As comparison, last year Wasco County had a tax rate of $4.25 per thousand dollars of assessed valuation, while Curry’s totalled just 60 cents.

As the map at left shows, there’s good reason for that. The southwestern part of the state, where Curry County is located, has substantially more federal land ownership than anywhere else in the state.

It’s pretty clear at this point that the Western delegation — representing states much more sparsely populated than the densely peopled East and Midwest — has not been successful in restoring the much-needed revenues.

Legislation is pending in Congress to increase logging on O&C lands in western Oregon to increase federal remedies. But even if the bill is passed, it won’t yield any revenues for two to three years — and its prospects remain in doubt.

In the interim, Curry County runs the risk of repeating an incident like the one in Cave Junction last year where a woman was kidnapped and brutalized by her ex-boyfriend after a dispatcher had to tell her there were no deputies to send to her aid.

In rural Oregon counties slowly recovering from the Great Recession and never fully recovered from the cuts to federal timber harvests, the prospect of a tax increase must seem even more unappetizing than seems to be in Wasco County. But it may be the only option that will allow Curry County to chart its own course.

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