Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

By Terri Harber


The federal government has asked for partial repayments of Secure Rural Schools money from all recipients - including Baker County - a move that has angered Oregon's congressional delegation.

In January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Department sent $323 million to 41 states.

Federal officials say budget cuts related to the sequester are why they want a portion of the money back. Oregon counties would be required to return $3.6 million.

Baker County received about $800,000 from this source for its road department funding, said Fred Warner Jr., the Baker County Commission Chairman.

He said the feds might be seeking a return of more than $40,000 from this fund.

Does Warner believe they'll ask for a rebate check to be sent soon?

"I don't think they can do that," Warner guessed.

But if the feds decide some of the money should be reimbursed, they might take it out of next year's payment, for example, he said.

"We haven't heard for sure" how this might be accomplished,Warner said.

Next year's payments aren't a sure thing, but Warner and others involved say they're hopeful the money could be allocated again.

The money is supposed to help make up for revenue not earned by counties when logging doesn't occur on federal lands within their borders because of wildlife protection needs.

A group of congressional representatives have sent a letter to the Obama administration asking why they want it back - especially because it's based on 2012 revenues and not subject to the sequester.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash, stated in the letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Office of Management and Budget Director Jeffrey Zients that seeking the return of the Secure Rural Schools money is an "obvious attempt" to make the sequester as painful as possible, according to The Associated Press.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, whose district includes Baker County, is among 30 co-signers of the letter.

"The federal government gave this money to counties because they won't let us manage our forests, but now they want the money back? Instead of cutting funding, we should be cutting trees," Walden said in a statement.

"The impact of a further cut to counties who are already in a death spiral due to the lack of any meaningful production from our forests only underscores the need to get back to work in the woods which will grow healthy communities and forests," Walden also stated.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, Fourth District, asked a high-ranking U.S. Forest Service official about the matter on March 21 during a Natural Resources Committee hearing on an unrelated matter.

The exchange is contained on a video posted to DeFazio's congressional website and YouTube.

"Where's are you going to get that money?" DeFazio wondered.

Mary Wagner, associate chief for the Forest Service, told DeFazio they were going to "ask for return of 5.5 percent" to the U.S. Treasury Department.

The other option would be to take the money out of Title II funds localities receive.

Warner said the local funding for Title II was about $100,000 this time.

This money helps communities create additional employment opportunities through projects that benefit fish, wildlife, soils, watersheds, forest health, and other natural resources.

Other uses include maintenance of roads, trails and other infrastructure and control of noxious weeds.

The communities and Forest Service work closely together on these projects.

Not all communities receive this money, however, DeFazio said.

"This is extraordinary," he said of the plan to take back the money. "I find this very, very hard to believe."

And later, he made a statement about the plan. This is part of it:

"... Now, bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. have decided failing rural counties across the country should repay a portion of already reduced support payments that otherwise would be used for our schools and crumbling roads. It doesn't make any sense, it will further hurt struggling counties, and the administration should fix it."

And U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both D-Oregon, released a joint statement about this sequestration-related development.

"The administration clearly failed to plan for the impact of the sequester on Secure Rural Schools funding for rural counties. ..." they stated.

The senators also wrote that "Rural communities should not pay the price for bad planning by bureaucrats. USDA should reverse its request that states and counties repay $18 million in SRS funds."