Public Safety Crisis – Timber!
For several years, public officials have been making a point to communicate to the public the severity of Lane County’s public safety crisis. According to county officials, the public safety situation is only going to be more dire should the voters of Lane County choose not to approve a proposed levy which would ensure the maintenance of 255 beds at the Lane County Jail, and 36 at the John Serbu Youth Campus and Juvenile Justice Center. This levy, if passed, will keep the beds operational for a period of five years.
The first installment of Lane Today’s series explored the origins of funding for many county services, and how the funding sources had effectively sustained county services for a long time. The second installment will explore what has happened over the last few decades financially that has led to the current state of public safety in Lane County.
In 1976, the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) was enacted into law. This law was an amendment to the Forest and Rangelands Renewable Resources Planning Act of 1974, calling for management of renewable resources on national forests. As a result of NMFA, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) began a more disciplined and organized approach to managing forest lands. The act required the forest service to conduct an inventory of its lands, then engage in a process to determine the best use for the lands.
Alternative land management options had to be presented with consideration to the output of resources such as timber, range, recreation and mining; while also considering the economic and social effects on impacted communities.
In 1990, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) placed the northern spotted owl on the list of threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The Northwest Forest Plan, in 1994, provided protections for the spotted owl living in forests in California, Oregon and Washington. According to the FWS, the harvesting of timber and conversion of forest lands contributed to the loss of habitat for the spotted owl. Old-growth forests are prime habitat for the spotted owl, but are also preferred timber for harvest to meet the needs of construction and production of wood products. Continued protection of habitat areas for the spotted owl has contributed to the decline of timber revenues provided by the revenue sharing act from 1908, which provided that 25 percent of revenue be distributed to counties. This has also affected the O&C lands, which has been another source of timber revenue for Lane County from lands originally designated to build the Oregon and California Railroad.
Oregon voters passed Measure 5 in 1990. Beginning in the 1991-92 budget biennium, the measure limited taxes imposed on properties to $5 per $1,000 of real market value for school taxes and $10 per $1,000 of real market value for general government taxes. The real market value for government taxes applied only to operating taxes, but not bonds.
Under this system, should the total tax responsibility exceed the amounts authorized by Measure 5, the entities imposing taxes are required to reduce taxes proportionately until the tax liability falls below the thresholds set by Measure 5.
Measure 50 was passed by Oregon voters in 1997. This measure reduced property taxes in the subsequent biennium, and also worked to slow the growth of property tax going forward. This was accomplished by setting a property’s assessed value at 90 percent of its real market value from 1995-96. Unless substantial improvements were made to a property, the measure also limited a property’s assessed value growth to three percent annually, regardless of real market value. The assessed value of most properties is less than the real market value, which is the amount a property could sell for as determined by the county assessor.
Lane County collects $1.28 per $1,000 of assessed value, ranking it in the lowest five county property tax rates in Oregon. Every city within the borders of Lane County collects property tax at a higher rate than the county, ranging from Lowell, collecting $2.16 per $1,000 of assessed value to Westfir, which rakes in $9.30 per $1,000. Eugene collects $7.01, and Springfield collects $4.74.
The U.S. Congress passed into law the Secure Rural Schools and Self-Determination Act of 2000 (SRS). This law allowed counties the choice to receive the average of the three highest payments between fiscal years 1986-1999 in lieu of the 25 percent payment counties had been receiving. This act, however, required counties to use 15-20 percent of the payments for specified purposes. SRS expired in 2006, but was renewed by Congress for one year in 2007, four years in 2008 and one additional year in 2012. It has not been renewed since then, and each renewal was approved with a reduction in payments from the previous terms.
In 2008, Lane County received $46.7 million from SRS. Over the next few years, the amount of money received from SRS declined rapidly, to a final payment of $18.1 million for the 2011-12 fiscal year. Lane County receives no federal funding now in lieu of reductions in timber harvest revenue, and stands to receive less than $4 million annually going forward from timber revenues on U.S. Forest Service and O&C lands.
In the next installment of Lane Today’s series on public safety in Lane County, we will explore measures the county has taken independent of receiving federal funding to maintain vital services to Lane County residents.