SALEM — Citing a “lack of communication, advocacy and representation,” southern Oregon’s Jackson County is withdrawing from a lobbying organization that represents the state’s counties.
The Jackson County Commission will end its membership in the Association of Oregon Counties at the end of the legislative session. The move that will make Jackson the only one of Oregon’s 36 counties not represented by the association, which was formed in 1906.
Colleen Roberts, chair of the Jackson County Commission, said its contract with AOC did not provide a return on the investment. Counties pay dues for membership in the association, which lobbies on the counties’ behalf.
“The consensus of the commission was that there wasn’t a cost benefit, and state legislative policy would proceed without consultation nor consideration of the impacts to our county,” Roberts said.
According to an invoice provided by Roberts, AOC billed Jackson County for $25,400.50 in dues for Jan. 1 to July 31 of this year.
The source of the dispute appears to be discussions in the legislature over whether Jackson County should qualify for proposed funding intended to boost counties that previously relied on revenues from timber harvests on federal land.
According to Roberts, the commission was frustrated with the association’s representation on House Bill 3374. That legislation is something of a response to the 2015 expiration of the federal Secure Rural Schools program, which provided federal money to counties in the wake of dwindling timber harvests.
House Bill 3374 would create a county assistance fund and direct the Oregon Department of Revenue to make grants to certain counties — provided they meet specific qualifications — that previously received payments from the Secure Rural Schools program.
Roberts says Jackson County qualified to receive money from the fund under the bill, and under an amended version of the bill.
However, members of the House Committee on Economic Development and Trade, which heard public testimony on the initial bill April 5, wondered whether Jackson County ought to qualify.
The initial bill said counties that received an amount from the Secure Rural Schools program that was more than 10 percent of total property taxes in the 2008 fiscal year could qualify for the grant program, providing they met other criteria.
In the 2008 fiscal year, Jackson County received an amount from Secure Rural Schools equal to about 40 percent of its total property taxes, according to a list compiled by State Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, and posted on the legislature’s website.
State Rep. Pam Marsh, a Democrat from Ashland in Jackson County, said at the time she would support discussing narrowing eligibility for the payments.
While Jackson County qualified, Marsh said it did not necessarily need the money the legislation could provide.
“Jackson County has money in the bank, has been well managed, has established a library district, people have stepped up,” Marsh said during the hearing. “It’s an example of a county that’s really pulled itself together after the decline of payments from the federal level. I can’t see any reason why the state from an objective, external point of view should a provide a handout to Jackson County.”
Roberts contends a representative of AOC “said nothing” on the county’s behalf during the hearing.
Laura Cleland, a spokeswoman for AOC, said it would not have been appropriate for Gil Riddell, the association’s policy director, who was testifying at the meeting, to jump into the discussion.
“It would have been very inappropriate to insert himself into a conversation between legislators at that stage of the game,” Cleland said. “They weren’t asking him.”
Riddell did tell legislators he could help put together a list of counties that included their 2008 Secure Rural Schools payments as a percentage of property taxes.
Cleland added that the association tries to represent all counties.
“As I’m sure you can understand, every county and every elected official has opinions,” Cleland said. “While we respect those views, our role really is to find common ground. Not every county is happy 100 percent of the time.”
Roberts, the commission chair, said the Jackson County Commission would seek “an alternative means of representation” in the future.