Oregon Senators, Representatives Introduce Bipartisan, Common-Sense Bill to Ensure Oregon Counties Can Use Emergency Response Funds

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon’s Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, along with Representatives Kurt Schrader (OR-5), Greg Walden (OR-2), and Peter DeFazio (OR-4), today introduced legislation to ensure that Oregon counties can use Secure Rural Schools (SRS) funds for a full range of emergency response activities, including preparations for emergency response and law enforcement patrols. This bill represents a common-sense fix to a problem that has prevented many counties from using their full Secure Rural Schools resources where they are most needed in the community.

The legislation is also cosponsored in the Senate by Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Jim Risch (R-ID), and Patty Murray (D-WA).

Currently, the federal government allows SRS funds to be used for counties’ emergency response activities – but not for preparations for emergency response. This has created an illogical policy where, for instance, counties could use these funds to carry out a search and rescue mission, but not for the training and equipment that is necessary to the success of that mission.

“It’s absurd that the federal government has prevented Oregon counties from using these emergency response funds where they will do the most good,” said Merkley. “Many of our county budgets are already being stretched thin, and this bipartisan, common-sense bill will help ensure that potential resources that could help save Oregonians’ lives won’t go to waste.”

“Secure Rural Schools is and always was meant to be a lifeline for rural communities to afford essentials like education for our young people and law enforcement to keep our communities safe,” said Wyden. “As the author of the original Secure Rural Schools Program, there’s no question in my mind that search and rescue and other vital safety services should qualify for these funds. This common-sense update will help Oregon communities get the most out of their county payments as I keep working with my colleagues to reauthorize this safety net and keep those services funded for years to come.”

“It’s totally unacceptable that Marion County and counties across Oregon are having to forego critical public safety and law enforcement activities because they lack the authority to spend available funds,” said Schrader. “Our rural communities, like every other community, deserve to have adequate funding that corresponds to their needs. Our bipartisan, no-brainer legislation will ensure that our rural communities can effectively and efficiently keep these areas safe and secure.”

“Our first responders are faced with handling search and rescue incidents on our public lands. Responding, and the training and equipment needed to do so effectively, comes at a cost and the Secure Rural Schools legislation gave funds to counties to help cover that,” said Walden. “The Forest Service’s limitations on the use of these funds to active operations makes little sense and has made it hard for counties to use their funds. As the Hood River Sheriff told me, it’s a little hard to go buy the climbing rope you need to perform a rescue at 11pm. This common-sense fix will ensure Oregon’s counties can utilize their funds to ensure they have the tools and training needed to continue conducting search and rescue operations on our public lands.”

“It defies logic that counties can use Secure Rural Schools funds to protect their communities in an emergency, but cannot use those funds to prepare and train for that emergency,” said DeFazio. “Oregon’s first responders are dedicated, committed public servants who put their lives on the line every day to ensure our safety—we owe it to them to make sure they have the training and equipment needed to keep them safe.”

Specifically, the legislation would allow counties to use their Secure Rural Schools funds for:

· Law enforcement patrols and emergency search and rescue evacuations;

· Search and rescue preparedness training;

· Capital equipment, equipment maintenance, and other purchases relating to carrying out search and rescue and other emergency services; and

· Implementing community wildfire protection plans.

The legislation is endorsed by the Association of Oregon Counties.