Counties question funding returns

By Observer Upload April 04, 2013 02:17 pm

Wallowa County would have to return $1.24 million; Union County $910,742 

by Katy Nesbitt /The Observer

Wallowa and Union Counties may have to return more than $2 million in Secure Rural School funding used to support road departments and schools due to across-the-board cuts in the federal government.

Mike Hayward, Wallowa County Board of Commissioners chairman, said he’s not sure exactly how it will play out.

“It sounds to me that the governor or someone at the state will have to look at how they go about refunding a portion of the money we received in January,” Hayward said.

He said according to the U.S. Forest Service’s Chief Tom Tidwell, 5.1 percent may have to be returned, or the equivalent taken out of Title II funds that go to special Forest Service projects. 

Hayward said if Wallowa County does have to return money it would be a little under $50,000 from the road department and approximately $15,000 from the schools for a total of $1.24 million.

“Is it a big deal? We have the money to pay it back,” he said.

Hayward said his understanding is that the money allocated three months ago was from the 2012 fiscal year.

“Are they taking the sequester out of the previous year’s monies?” asked Hayward.

At this point, it’s up to the state to decide. 

Mark Davidson, Board of Commissioners chairman for Union County, said he got a message that the Forest Service was asking for a return of some of the SRS money.

“For us to give it back, we would have to go to the schools and ask them to return it,” Davidson said.

Union County received $910,742 this winter and distributed approximately $68,000 to the road department and almost $23,000 to the schools.

“I think it’s unfortunate. Obviously those funds are badly needed to fund our roads and school, but it’s more than welfare checks we need,” Davidson said. “We also need increased active management on our national forests in a meaningful way for not only roads and schools, but for local contractors, the mills and the people that work there.”

The special fund was implemented in 2000 by Congress to compensate counties whose local economies were dependent on the timber industry. Wallowa County has no mills capable of receiving saw logs, and Union County mills have cut staffing drastically in the last 20 years. The counties have yet to recover from the loss of timber jobs, and no other industry has come in to replace it.

“We have to be honest with ourselves. With the resources we have here and what types of businesses make sense — our foundation is in resource-based industries like agriculture and timber,” Davidson said.

More than 48 percent of Union County and 58 percent of Wallowa County is national forest.

Davidson said those figures are a huge percentage of the land mass. He said 800 million board feet of timber grows each year on the Umatilla, Malheur and Wallowa-Whitman forests, and about half of that dies every year.

“We have taken fire out of the ecological equation and we have to replace some of that natural disturbance,” Davidson said. “We need to do that in productive ways that benefit the landscape ecologically and benefit our communities. The federal government promised when they created the Forest Service they would manage the lands for the benefit of the local community.”