April 12, 2001 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Concerns about rural Oregons economy have attracted the attention of many, including the states largest public employees union.

The Service Employees International, formerly Oregon Public Employees Union, has joined with a broad-based statewide coalition to support a youth boot camp in Union County, which was to provide about 35 new jobs.

The proposed youth opportunity camp, one of three owned by the Oregon Youth Authority, was designed to house boys, ages 15 to 18, who commit low-level property crimes. The camp at Hilgard, completed earlier this year, did not open when the governors proposed

budget contained no funds for its operation.

The coalition is asking the Legislature to restore the $24 million for the Hilgard camp and other Oregon boot camps.

Jobs are a big part of it, said the unions vice president, Gary Westoby, about the organizations support for the camps. But other issues need to be addressed, including the economic impact to rural communities.

The union joined with a coalition that includes several district attorneys, a sheriffs association, rural counties, Crime Victims United, a youth advocacy group and defense lawyers. The coalition expressed its support for the youth camps during a press conference Thursday in Salem.

A boot camp at Tillamook shows the economic impact on a small community. About $3.2 million has been projected for salaries and benefits during the next two years, and another $940,000 is expected to be spent for services and supplies.

About a third of that goes back into the Tillamook community, Westoby said.

Representatives from the coalition will testify at the state House Ways and Means Committee during a hearing April 19. Were cautiously optimistic (about the future), Westoby said.

The union vice president said that since the Oregon Youth Authority has been created and tougher sentencing laws imposed, crime in Oregon decreased.

Were concerned that making a $24 million drop in our current service will cause juvenile crime to rise, he said.There will be a revolving-door judicial system, where a kid is remanded to the state and after three or four months released with no treatment.

Thats the big problem.

Union County Commissioner Steve McClure, who attended the press conference, agrees with Westobys assessment.

This is a program that has worked for Oregonians, McClure said. Why take a program that works, take the funding and shift it somewhere else? This is clearly one of those programs that works.

McClure said that he expects no decisions from the Legislature until after the revenue forecast in May.

There are no guarantees in this game, McClure said. If the forecast comes in worse than March, its going to be tougher.