The single largest funding source for Wasco County roads has come to an end. Historically, Wasco county roads have been primarily been funded by state gas taxes, vehicle registrations and federal forest receipts.
Forest receipts come mainly from timber sales in the national forest. As compensation for the tax-exempt status of the national forests, counties were promised a 25 percent share of all receipts from the forests. For over 80 years, those forest receipts were the lifeblood of the county road department. However, due to environmental and endangered species legislation, timber sales in the national forest declined substantially in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
Because of this decline, Congress enacted the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000 (SRS). The federal act was a promise to replace lost forest revenue after logging was so sharply curtailed and so many Oregon mills were closed. The SRS funding program has expired and the final check was received at the end of 2012. This is the first of what are planned to be a number of attempts to involve the citizenry of Wasco County.
What has been done so far? Over the past 6 or 7 years there have been sharp reductions in personnel and road maintenance has become more and more selective and focused. Recently a citizens Road Advisory Committee was formed. These volunteers come from a variety of business and agricultural backgrounds. Through the group’s first six meetings they reached some tentative conclusions and developed a set of goals based on those conclusions.
Clearest of the items listed is that the Wasco County Public Works Department will not be able to continue to provide services at either its historic or much-reduced current levels without resources to replace those lost as a result of federal funding reductions.
We have discussed how budget levels could be reduced without the loss of what we consider essential services. We have explored alternative sources of funding and the potential for each. The choices that must be made are going to be difficult and we submit that there should be adequate opportunity for public discussion and input. As a result of these meetings, a preliminary presentation was made to the Wasco County Commission and our Road Advisory Committee spoke of four goals.
Goal 1: Build public awareness of the facts regarding Wasco County Roads. Ask for local media for assistance, schedule meeting with interest groups, service clubs and other organizations throughout the County.
Goal 2: Based on public comment, define acceptable minimum service levels. After public meetings, engage stakeholder groups such as cherry orchardists, wheat growers, school districts, etc.
Goal 3: Develop a plan for the next budget cycle (2013-2014 already resolved). Explore more shared services, personnel attrition and early retirements, benefit changes, and work hour changes and/or reductions.
Goal 4: Explore new revenue sources for the Road Department. Develop a short list of new funding options — identify potential sources of funding, amounts of potential funding and implementation processes.
The Road Advisory Committee has done an exemplary job and truly the work has just begun as they head out into the community of Wasco County to seek additional input. We hope that, aside from the meetings, you will speak individually with those who have given so freely of their valuable time: Chair Chuck Covert, John Fulton, Keith Mobley, Dan Crouse, Ken Polehn, Sherry Holliday, Dennis James, Dave Cooper, Phil Kaser and Paul Kuehnl.
The committee fully realizes our county emphasis on economic development and 700 miles of roads are at the forefront of Wasco County commerce. This column will be followed by others that will tell the story with additional facts and figures. Our PowerPoint presentation and other information are available at our website, www.wasco.or.us.