Bill aims to fill county budget gaps

WASHINGTON — Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley introduced his first piece of legislation Monday — a measure to create a 15-member task force to study ways to help timber-dependent counties in Oregon.

Merkley, who took office in January, had promised during last year’s campaign to address the timber issue in his first bill. He said the long-term success of Oregon’s rural counties is one of his top priorities.

The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., would direct the task force to determine the best way to provide rural counties with a dependable source of revenue after the current “county payments” program expires in 2011.

Congress last year extended the timber payment program, officially known as the Secure Rural Schools and Community Development law, through 2011. The law gives a total of $3.3 billion to 700 counties in 39 states. Oregon is the biggest recipient of money from the timber program and is scheduled to receive $210 million this year.

Yet many of Oregon’s timber-reliant counties have been struggling to provide sheriff’s patrols, keep jails and libraries open, fund schools and maintain roads.

“Letting county payments end after 2011 would leave gaping holes in county budgets. We can’t let that happen,” Merkley said. “What my bill does is bring together all of the key parties to figure out what the future should look like.”

If approved by Congress, the task force would have nine months to consider a range of options, including continuation of the current program, Merkley said.