Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Western Oregon BLM Federal Public Forestlands:

Curry County Doeth Protest Too Much

The conventional narrative of poor Curry County is actually one of cheap and freeloading Curry County.

The most destitute O&C county is Curry, which has informed the governor of pending insolvency. Let’s compare Curry to the County of Multnomah, an O&C arguably the least destitute (perhaps Washington County is less so, but since Multnomah County is the largest and contains most of Portland, it is the most disdained and envied downstate, so is used here for comparison).

The Curry County Reporter ran this opinion piece below by me on February 8, 2012. All figures are fully documented. I must confess to being surprised by the muted reaction. Neither a letter to the editor about nor a death threat did I provoke. Perhaps it is because I am irrelevant or perhaps because the facts are incontrovertible.

All O&C counties need to pay their fair share of property taxes  

Curry County says it will be insolvent if Congress doesn't again extend direct support payments as an alternative to sharing federal public forestlands timber receipts.  

Curry and 17 other western Oregon counties are given 75% of the gross timber receipts from the Bureau of Land Management's so-called ‘O&C' lands, which encompass over two million acres. The payments from the O&C Fund are in lieu of taxes, as counties cannot tax federal forestland as if it were in private timberlands. The lands were once in private ownership but were returned to the federal government for violation of the land grant terms.

This multi-decade fiscal windfall courtesy of clearcutting the nation's ancient forests has resulted in several of these counties levying ridiculously low property taxes.

When the northern spotted owl hit the fan in the early 1990s, clearcutting of old-growth forests – and the receipts they generated – plummeted. The third temporary congressional bailout law – intended to be bridge funding until counties could obtain replacement funding – expired last year.

Not only has it been a good thing that Oregon is no longer clearcutting ancient forest at the rate of two square miles per week, it has been good that the educating of children and the filling of potholes was no longer tied to federal forest logging.

Curry County taxpayers pay the second lowest property taxes in Oregon. Let's compare Curry to Multnomah County.

Curry and Multnomah pay $4.30 and $9.80 per $1,000 of real market value of a home respectively (Oregon: $8.90; U.S. $9.70).

The median home value for Curry and Multnomah is $267,400 and $269,000 respectively – statistically identical (Oregon: $257,400; U.S.: $185,400).

The median homeowner in Curry and Multnomah counties pays 2.64% and 3.85% respectively of their medium household income in property taxes (Oregon: 3.59%; U.S.: 2.81%).

While the Curry County's median household income of $44,496 per year is far lower than Multnomah County's $69,012 per year (Oregon: $62,418; U.S.: $64,338) – as both a percentage of median household income and in absolute dollars – Curry County taxpayers pay far less.

Curry County is not more destitute. Curry's and Multnomah's poverty rates are 16% and 18% respectively (Oregon: 15.8%; U.S.: 15.1%).

Curry County is demanding to receive $4.1 million annually from the federal government as a replacement to the O&C Fund. Were Curry County's O&C lands still on the tax roles as private timberland, Curry County would receive $302,000 annually.

Curry County's property tax rate is 41% below the statewide average. If it paid its fair share (one-third the cost to replace the O&C Fund), its property taxes would still be 37% below the statewide average.

Curry County has been free-riding at the expense of the nation's taxpayers and the nation's federal public forestlands. To pay its obligations, Multnomah County also taxes gasoline sales and has had its own general income tax. Multnomah County taxpayers also pay a special income tax to fund public transportation.

Oregon Congressional Delegation members are taking differing approaches to resolving the county payments crisis. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and 31 other senators have introduced legislation to continue the payments another four years. The legislation would provide funding at levels reduced from the excessive windfall amounts of the past, but keeping in line that federal, state and county governments all doing their fair shares to solve the problem.

To fund the counties, Congressmen Peter DeFazio, Greg Walden and Kurt Schrader are contemplating sacrificing over a million acres of federal public forestlands to short-rotation (clearcut early and often) industrial forestry. Clearcutting, even if bipartisan, is not a good idea.

Clearcutting their way out of the county funding problem will result in dirtier drinking water, more imperiled fish and wildlife species, worse scenery and increased climate disruption. Liquidating the nation's natural assets to pay local government operating costs is not a good idea.

Congress should help. But Curry and the other counties also need to help themselves – but not by helping themselves to the nation's federal public forestlands.

In 1927, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes noted, "taxes are what we pay for civilized society."

Curry County needs to become more civilized.

Andy Kerr