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A loss of federal timber receipts is leading to budget trouble

April 1, 2007 Herald and News by Ty Beaver

Dan Golden, assistant director of the Klamath County Juvenile Department, remembers one of the youth who passed through his program. At 15, the boy was so low functioning that he read at a second-grade level, committed crimes and behaved badly to appease his peers.

Once in the juvenile system, correctional and other staff discovered his limits and placed him in rehabilitation, where he's getting help and qualifies for disability assistance.

Such success stories may become less common in Klamath County as local government has to deal with the loss of federal timber payments.

H&N photo by Andrew Mariman Pauline Mullendore, Chief Deputy Clerk at Klamath County Public Records, glances over records going back to the early 1870’s at the Klamath County Government Center. The volumes were being shipped out two at a time for refurbishing but recent funding issues have put a stop to that.

About $1.3 million, or 10 percent, of the county's general fund came from payments based on the Secure Rural Schools & Communities Self Determination Act in 2006.

Another $10 million went to the county road department budget, making up 65 percent of its funding.

Surrounding counties, communities and schools in southern Oregon and northern California also depended on the payments for portions of their budgets.

There are certain services county departments must offer, both by law and by necessity. That means other services, while important, will fall by the wayside or be shortchanged.

Officials remain optimistic that other revenue sources will be secured or local representatives in the federal government will push through an extension of the payments. Until then, though, budgets will have to face the chopping block.

Juvenile department

The juvenile department is facing a budget with funding reduced by $138,403 compared to last year's. Those cuts will not only affect the department's efficiency, but how well it can rehabilitate the youth it deals with, Golden said.

One juvenile counselor/probation officer is expected to be laid off. The department currently has five counselors, each handling about 70 to 80 cases. Even without losing one of them, Golden said the counselors have one of the highest case workloads in the state.

Correctional staff will also be cut. At least one full-time staff member along with one or more part-time staff members are set to be laid off. The staff supervises the department's detainees, from chores and recreation to their schoolwork.

With less correctional staff on hand, Golden said county's detention center would be pushed to take in fewer youth. Currently, about 20 youth are in the facility on a day-to-day basis. The cuts in staff would reduce that by about 25 percent to 14 or 15, with those committing less serious crimes being given diversion or probation instead. That scenario concerns Golden.

“When you start bumping prisoners, kids begin to think there's no accountability,” he said.

County Clerk

Klamath County Clerk Linda Smith said her department is required to run elections along with recording deeds, mortgages and marriage licenses. Staff is already at a minimum, meaning the department will have to cut non-essential services and training, something Smith said she doesn't relish.

About 30 to 50 people use the department's passport service each week. Without funding, though, that service is in line to be cut, leaving the United State Post Office as the only other place to get a passport in the area.

Smith said she is also looking at cutting travel and training from the budget. Staff would rely on manuals, e-mails and phone calls to state trainers to prepare for elections. With the presidential primary and election coming up next year, that's not something she wants to be without.

“Everyday operation, no one's going to see, but elections will be harder,” she said.

One other possible line item to fall by the wayside will be the restoration of the department's hundreds of record books of mortgages, deeds and marriage licenses.

Utilized by the public as well as the department to verify information for legal purposes, the books have begun to wear out, and the paper is disintegrating. Smith said the department was in the process of sending two books out at a time to be restored and preserved but that will be put on hold now, further lengthening the process.

Roads department

Roads is one area that will be heavily affected by the loss of the county payments. According to Klamath County's road department five-year plan, the department will go from spending $16.5 million in the 2007-08 fiscal year to $9.8 million in the 2011-12 fiscal year, surviving primarily on reserves of about $100 million accumulated over the years.

Unlike other county departments, the road department will reduce its costs by not filling positions as members of its staff retire. In five years, about 20 people will remain in the department.

But the severe cut in funding will affect how much work the department does. Stan Strickland, director of public works, said the department will be able to maintain what the county already has but won't have funds for any improvements.

Several improvement projects are budgeted for the next five years such as work to Shasta Way, Onyx Avenue and the Sprague River bridges. Beyond those no more will be placed on the schedule for work, Strickland said.

In Lake County, 90 percent of the county's road department budget is comprised of federal timber payments. Lake County commissioner Dan Shoun said the loss will not only prevent improvement projects but severely curtail maintenance efforts, which could affect commerce as well as schools and residents' travel. The county is also facing a loss of 5 percent to its general fund budget.

“This would be a serious, serious detriment to how we go about our roads in the future,” he said.

The effects of the payments also reaches down to city governments. In Klamath County, about $800,000 went to the incorporated cities for road maintenance. That sum will be below $50,000 in the coming year.

Filling the gap

As local government prepares for the loss of the payments that have funded them for a number of years, officials are looking to how to fill the gap the that loss creates.

Both Shoun and Klamath County Commissioner Al Switzer said they hope for Congress to provide an extension of the payments. The House has passed an emergency supplemental bill that includes a one-year extension of the payments while the Senate passed that same bill with a five-year extension. The bill's main purpose is to fund military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Switzer stressed that economic growth will not fill the void. The costs of government, particularly when it comes to insurance for employees, are growing quicker than taxes can legally be raised.

“You can't grow yourself out of this,” he said.

Switzer said that he hopes for the extension not to fix the funding issue, but to provide a window of time for officials to establish another, more stable source of revenue. The Klamath County commissioner personally is working toward the establishment of four trust funds created by the selling of O&C lands in Oregon.

The O&C lands were private railroad lands that reverted to federal management when they were not sold. The money from selling them now for sustained timber harvest could potentially create a base of funding that could permanently replace the federal payments.

Both commissioners said that while their governments were feeling the pains of fiscal belt-tightening, the situation could be worse. Oregon counties west of the Cascades are cutting as much as 50 percent of their general funds because of the loss of the payments and one, Curry County, is facing bankruptcy.

Shoun said he is optimistic that Congress will provide an extension of the payments. In the meantime, he said his county is looking for other alternative sources of funding to supplement their budget.

“I'm confident that it will work out,” he said.

- By Ty Beaver

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