Congress approves new round of county payments
Congress has approved a two-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools program, which was a welcome development for Crook County leaders.
Reauthorization of the extension was announced by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who created the program in 2000 with then Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). Payments were expected to start going out last week.
"As the author of the law that created the SRS program, I fought to extend SRS payments so rural counties in Oregon can keep their schools and libraries open, make sure law enforcement can protect our communities, and ensure road repairs can get done," Wyden said. "SRS payments are a critical part of what's needed to ensure our rural communities can thrive. That's why I'm also pushing for ways to support sustainable forest restoration and create more jobs in the woods and in the mills."
Merkley added that he secured a fix that will allow the funds to pay for emergency response preparations, something he said Oregonians have requested recently.
"This important funding now provides the flexibility counties need to spend emergency response dollars where they will do the most good," he said.
The Secure Rural Schools program was created to backfill revenue lost from declining timber receipts. The program primarily funds the Crook County Road Department, although some of the money pays for forest safety efforts as well, and a portion goes to the local school district.
"They are extremely important," said Crook County Judge Seth Crawford. "That's what allows us to keep the roads in such good condition locally."
He went on to say that the payments provide enough money to cover road department operations and sometimes helps the county contribute to the road department reserve account. Without the payments, the county would have to eat into the reserve account and once that is gone, county officials would have to likely rethink how to fund the department.
Crook County is slated to receive $1.513 million in Secure Rural Schools dollars for 2018. How that money will get divided between the road department, school district and other recipients is yet to be determined.
However, the amount will be the most the county has received since at least 2015, when the program provided $1.482 million. No money was delivered to Crook County by the federal program in 2016, and in 2017, the county received only $83,001.
"It's declining every year," said Kathy Puckett with the Crook County Treasurer's Office.
While Wyden and Merkley played a role in reauthorizing the Secure Rural Schools program another year, Crawford is quick to point out that Rep. Greg Walden played a key role in restoring the payments this year.
"Congressman Walden worked extremely hard to make this happen, and we really appreciate him stepping up for our community," he said.
However, Crawford went on to note that Walden and county officials would prefer to improve forest management and generate revenue by returning to the woods and making use of local natural resources.
Also, in the long-term, Crawford believes the county should develop a way to fund the road department that isn't as heavily dependent on the Secure Rural Schools program.
"We need to come up with a plan to be sustainable over time with or without the federal government's help," he said.