Distressed counties don't deserve more handouts
The danger with welfare, be it individual, corporate or governmental, is succumbing to dependency ... becoming addicted to the easy fix to the point where any semblance of normalcy seems hopeless if Uncle Sam shuts off the spigot.
That’s exactly what ails some of Oregon’s 18 Oregon & California Railroad counties, most notably, perhaps, Coos, Curry, Douglas, Josephine, Klamath and Polk.
The rest are in better shape because their O&C take represented a smaller share of overall revenue, and/or they simply managed the money more wisely. That camp includes the highly diversified urban counties of Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas, Marion, Benton, Lane and Jackson, along with the agriculturally oriented rural counterparts of Linn, Lincoln, Columbia, Tillamook and Yamhill.
Bailout advocates call the O&C counties “timber-dependent,” but that’s a gross distortion. Cutting and processing trees accounts for less than 4 percent of the workforce even in the big three of Douglas, Lane and Jackson, which once took in more than $60 million from an annual fund topping $100 million.
The truth is, the problem counties have become so accustomed to someone else picking up the tab for their services they are loath to shoulder a fair share themselves. That’s particularly true of Curry and Josephine, which have become poster children for fiscal collapse, and neighboring Polk County isn’t far behind.
The property tax rate for county services runs a state-low 59 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation in Josephine County, with Curry hard on its heels at 60 cents. At the other end of the spectrum, it tops $8.50 in Sherman and Wheeler, a pair of wind-swept Eastern Oregon counties where cows outnumber cars.
The rate runs $1.11 in Douglas, $1.28 in Lane and $1.72 in Polk, where O&C revenue has historically swelled coffers. It runs $5.30 in Multnomah, $3.10 in Marion and $2.57 in Yamhill, where O&C has loomed less large.
The state average is $2.82. If the counties teetering on the brink of bankruptcy bumped their rates to something near that level, the crisis would be over.
O&C’s roots reach back to the Civil War, when the Lincoln administration began offering subsidies to encourage rail development, in part to aid the war effort, in part simply to spur westward expansion and foster economic development.
In 1866, a successor administration offered the Oregon & California Railroad 3.8 million acres of old-growth Western Oregon timber in exchange for a rail line running south from Portland to San Francisco. There were significant strings attached, but the O&C and its successor, Southern Pacific, blithely ignored them.
Congress revoked the grant in 1916, seizing back about 3 million acres. It eventually turned them over to the federal Bureau of Land Management, which began managing them for timber production and splitting the revenue with the counties.
However, a combination of over-aggressive cutting, Southern competition and a growing environmental and recreational push have reduced cutting to a fraction of its 1980s heyday. It’s not coming back, and the affected counties need to come to grips with that.
Don’t look for help from those of us already paying our fair share, folks. The free lunch is over.