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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Cry, the beloved Clackamas

Another county 'shortfall' thanks to PERS
Officials pay lobbyists for federal money instead of looking within

Here we go again. Another timber county with a tax base starved for a century by President Teddy Roosevelt's timber tax-for-property swap fiasco, with tax revenues sucked dry by decades of PERS, and whose economic revival is being held hostage by a never-ending anti-Measure 37 campaign - now shifting blame for its woes onto taxpayers.

Last week, Jackson County announced that libraries will be picketed in April.

Yesterday, Fred A. Stickel, spokesperson for the anti-Measure 37 campaign and publisher of The Oregonian, joined with Clackamas County officials to announce plans to end maintenance of some roads this summer, as part of a plan to distract from PERS and Measure 37, blaming financial woes instead on the loss of $12 million in phased-out federal timber tax grants.

Stickel and county officials are also asking departments, including public safety, homeland security, emergency management, health and human services and parks and recreation, to make contingency plans for trimming their budgets 5 percent. Stickel said that separate programs to maintain hiking trails and stop the dumping of garbage in forests rely completely on the federal funds and could be eliminated or funded at the expense of other county programs.

The Oregonian is adopting its typical "the sky is falling strategy" to cynically use the timber-tax issue to shield public examination of PERS and Measure 37.

The bait-and-switch scheme allows government-growth advocates to take advantage of the September expiration of the federal Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act, which Congress approved in 2000. Enacted originally with sunset provisions that have already been extended once, the federal government made up for revenue that timber counties lost due to the logging ban in national forests. The Act is part of a vaunted state-federal partnership turned fiasco, dating to a Progressive Era confiscation of state land.

The phased-out federal money amounts to just 5 percent of Clackamas County's general fund.

PERS is Oregon's gold-plated Public Employees Retirement System. The cost consumes more than twice the national average, and amounts to up to 23 percent of public budgets. If PERS was somewhere in the middle of the pack, timber counties could have adjusted to the loss of timber-tax. There would be no crisis.

Measure 37 is the citizen initiative, twice approved by voters, that restores property rights that were suspended in 1970 under Oregon's draconian land-use planning law. It is being phased-in presently. Unlocking 37 years of land value appreciation in rural counties under Measure 37's responsible development provisions will reinvigorate the property tax base in rural counties and easily compensate for the loss of timber-taxes. But fewer than 1000 opponents of property rights, led by Si Newhouse's mouthpiece - The Oregonian, are lobbying the state Legislature to cancel Measure 37.

In the case of Clackamas County, Stickel even employed two area spokespersons to enter hypocritical high dudgeon, using the timber tax distraction to decry the loss to a County road fund. The Oregonian has long-opposed road-building in Oregon.

According to county road maintenance supervisor Darrel Burnum, about $4.5 million from the federal program went to maintaining collector roads, which feed traffic from residential roads to highways. Every summer, contracted workers repave the most beat-up collector roads, he said. The extent of the maintenance differs from year to year because some roads cost more to improve than others.

This summer that maintenance probably won't happen except for minor patches, said Jonathan Mantay, county administrator. The county can delay maintenance of its 1,400 miles of roads for a short period but can't avoid it forever, Mantay said, adding that the county has been working on a long-range plan to manage without the federal funds since 2000.

The specifics of department cuts will be worked out later this year as the county commissioners balance the budget, which is typically adopted in June and last year totaled about $590 million. Mantay said that Clackamas and other Oregon counties have been lobbying to restore the federal aid program, which brought about $220 million in annual payments to Oregon, more than any other state.

Gov. Tim Nesbitt has been lobbying for a last-minute extension of the act but so far has been unsuccessful. U.S. Rep. Darlene Hooley, D-Ore., said through her press secretary that she considers reinstating the bill as one of her top priorities. In a recent statement to Congress, Hooley said that she considered the loss of money "a full blown-crisis" for Oregon and other states.

The Oregonian, Feb. 27, By PETER ZUCKERMAN

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