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Congress approves timber payments to counties


Federal government — Yamhill County, which does not rely on the payments for its operational budget, is slated to receive an estimated sum of $251,907, pending presidential approval

Last month the U.S. House of Representatives voted to extend the Secure Rural Schools and Self-Determination Act (SRS) for one year, meaning federal timber payments to Yamhill and 17 other counties in the state will resume, pending approval by President Barack Obama.

Following a 97-2 vote to approve a bill co-sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden that continued timber payments through the end of the 2013 fiscal year, which ended Oct. 30, the House voted 367-0 to pass the temporary extension Sept. 23.

Yamhill County’s payment has been estimated at $251,907, but Commissioner Mary Stern said the money won’t make or break its budget, unlike in some Oregon counties, because the board has not counted on the money to fund operations for years now.

“The county payments have been so tentative over the last few years that we’re not counting our chickens,” Stern said. “It was five or six years ago when we started just putting that money aside for one-time projects rather than using it for operations, knowing that it was going to end.”

The amount the county will actually set aside will only be a portion of the full payment figure, as SRS requires certain amounts must be distributed for specific purposes, like 25 percent to the county’s rural schools fund.

Stern said the county began the year with approximately $545,000 in its O&C fund — so named because the SRS payments are tied to land in the county formerly belonging to the Oregon and California Railroad — and did not anticipate receiving any timber payments. Previously, the county has drawn from that fund to pay for one-time projects and costs, like the $10,000 it transferred into a revolving-loan fund to increase the amount local businesses could borrow.

“It’s going to be more than we anticipated, so we will keep it there and spend it wisely,” Stern said.
“In the past we’ve used some of these funds for capital improvements in software for the assessor’s office for taxation, we put some money into the habitat conservation plan that we’ve done and for a match for buses — one time things that we know we need and have used for that.”

Yamhill County’s position on the low-end of the scale of counties in the state receiving SRS payments used to be a bone of contention, but the situation seems to have reversed.

“When I first came into office in 2003, we were bemoaning the fact that we didn’t get as much as the other counties and now we’re saying it’s a good thing because we’re not relying on it,” Stern said. “So we’ve had some great budget officers who have given us good guidance and together the commissioners decided it was the best thing to do. We’ve been very fortunate.”

But because SRS payments have dwindled over the years and no longer cover the loss of timber revenues, especially in southern counties, Stern believes a better solution must be found moving forward.

“Although it’s nice for us to have, what needs to happen is some smart foresting of the O&C land, some better way to ensure that we’re protecting the environment, yet taking care of our forests and getting out the logging that needs to be done in a responsible way,” Stern said. “I know the governor has tried and our federal delegation is trying to find ways to make sustainable harvest occur, taking into account all the environmental issues. It’s just really difficult.”