Daily Courier: Senate approves county payments

April 15, 2015
In The News

Daily Courier: Senate approves county payments

A bill containing a two-year extension of federal county payments was approved by the U.S. Senate Tuesday and is on its way to President Barack Obama's desk, where it is expected he will sign it.

The bill is called the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 and is designed to overhaul the Medicare payment formula for doctors. But an amendment attached to the bill contains an extension of the "Secure Rural Schools" funding which will provide about $185 million to Oregon this year and next.

Last year the payments totaled $250 million

Under the amendment, Josephine County is earmarked to receive $4.6 million this year, though it's widely anticipated that $2.17 million the county has already received in shared receipts from timber sales will be deducted from that total. The second year of the extension includes $4.4 million for Josephine County.

This morning, County Finance Director Arthur O'Hare said he is "still in the wait and see mode" as far as how much money to expect.

"There are still some unanswered questions," O'Hare said. For instance, O'Hare fears there could be cuts in the amount the county will receive due to budget sequestering, which was authorized in 2013. Sequestering calls for automatic spending cuts in federal spending.

County Commission Chairman Keith Heck said the most recent information that the county has received is that no sequestration cuts will be taken from the money this year, but that it likely will come from the second year of the authorization.

But he also said nothing is certain at this point. He's also waiting for the president to sign the bill before he relies on the funding.

"We're one-third closer. We still have one-third to go," Heck said, referring to the fact the bill has passed in the Senate and House and now needs to be signed by Obama.

Regardless of how much the county receives, O'Hare has said the money will be earmarked for public safety, which includes the Sheriff's Office, the District Attorney's Office and the Juvenile Justice system. The county's public safety departments have suffered widespread layoffs and reduced services due to severe budget cuts in recent years.

Even with the federal money, public safety will have less money than this year and much less than years past when federal county payments to Josephine County averaged more than $10 million a year, sometimes approaching $15 million, most of which went to law enforcement.

A group called Community United for Safety, or CUFS, collected enough signatures to place a measure on the May ballot for a five-year property tax of $1.40 per $1,000 of assessed value.

That works out to $210 annually for a property assessed at $150,000.

Because of voter approved property tax limits, assessed values used to calculate taxes are generally about 20 percent less than real market values, although each property is unique.

The assessed value and the market value are both included on annual tax statements.

If the levy is approved, the money would pay for more sheriff's deputies, increased capacity at the jail, and the reopening of the Juvenile Justice Center.

Voters have rejected three levy proposals since 2012, the year the Sheriff's Office was decimated as county payments began to be phased out.

Josephine County's current property tax rate of 58 cents per $1,000 is the lowest in Oregon. The statewide median is about $2.50 per $1,000.

The Medicare bill originated in the House of Representatives, where it passed easily.

U.S. Reps. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, and Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, worked to add the county payments extension to the House bill.

They say the long-term solution must include an increase in timber harvests based on sound science.