By MITCH LIES
SALEM -- Four years ago, with Congress haggling over reauthorization of county timber payments, Klamath County commissioners started preparing for the day the payments would expire.
"What we didn't prepare for was the national economy falling off," county commissioner Al Switzer said.
Congress eventually reauthorized the payments for four years, beginning in 2008, under the Secure Rural Schools Act. The act, which expired this fall, included a four-year phase down of the payments.
Combined with the recession, the decline in timber payments has decimated the budgets of several Oregon counties that, like Klamath, rely on timber dollars.
Unless Congress reauthorizes the Secure Rural Schools Act, some counties could become financially insolvent, according to testimony Nov. 17 before a legislative task force.
In Klamath County, programs are a fraction of what they once were, Switzer told the task force.
The county cut 90 positions over the past four years, scaled back work weeks to 32 hours and reduced its prison size, he said. Thirty-two positions were cut in the sheriff's office alone, he said.
"We're starting to lose our ability to do the basic functions we are required to do," he said.
The county electorate hasn't helped. Voters twice defeated attempts to create a tax levy to support county services.
"We're just going to cut more, cut more and get down to the basics," Switzer said.
Things are potentially worse in Curry County, commissioner Dave Itzen said.
"Our view is that Curry will be, if not the first, one of the first counties to be financially dysfunctional," Itzen said.
Itzen said the county has notified Gov. John Kitzhaber of its "impending insolvency."
By January or February 2013, he said, the county "will not be able to fulfill our mandated functions.
"If things do not change, there is little doubt that will happen," Itzen told the task force.
Lawmakers formed the task force to respond to the loss of county timber payments. Several state and federal programs that utilize county funding could be affected if the payments expire, including soil and water conservation district programs and predator control programs.
Statewide, according to a new report from Oregon State University, the act's expiration could cost counties 4,000 jobs, $400 million in business sales and $250 million in income.
Counties will receive about $15 million from timber harvest off federal lands in 2013, according to the report. The federal government shares harvest revenue with counties that are home to federal forests.
By comparison, the report shows that Oregon counties received more than $230 million in federal timber payments in 2008.
Timber payments date back to 1990 when harvest levels on federal forests crashed after the spotted owl gained Endangered Species Act protections.
The payments are used to fund schools, county roads and other purposes.
Richard Whitman, natural resources policy adviser to Gov. John Kitzhaber, told the task force that several bills in Congress could provide counties some relief.
Among them, Senate Bill 1692 reauthorizes funding the Secure Rural Schools Act through 2016 at a gradually reduced rate. It has been introduced in the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources.
No hearing has been scheduled on the bill.
In the House, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., is working on legislation to increase the timber harvest on federal lands, Whitman said.