By Karen Wilkinson
Triplicate staff writer
A bill seeking to save Del Norte County and other rural areas money that may be lost indefinitely if Congress doesn't reauthorize a federal law was introduced last week to the delight of local officials.
"It's beneficial for everybody," said Del Norte County School District board member Bob Berkowitz. "We're pressing Congress for the passage of the Senate and House bill (and) we're asking those get passed by the Natural Resources Committee and Agriculture Committee as soon as possible."
Senate bill S380, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., had eight co-sponsors and the house bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., had 86 co-sponsors as of last week.
Following the Dec. 31 expiration of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, politicians and local officials found themselves scrambling to pull those federal funds back, as Congress failed to reauthorize the legislation last session.
"More than 700 counties in 39 states received funding under (this act)," said U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., in a press release. "Now, however, 4,535 schools in California alone are facing imminent teacher and administrator layoffs because this important legislation was not reauthorized in the last Congress."
The bill would restore funding to schools, county roads, the resource advisory committee and sheriff's search and rescue for seven years.
Last year the U.S. Forest Service funding program provided $385 million nationwide, of which California received more than $66 million.
About $2.578 million of the state's share made its way to Del Norte, which was dished out to the county and school district.
The Del Norte County School District and Office of Education, which last year received nearly $1.2 million, saw the looming loss coming three years ago and started weaning away from using the money on salaries. Instead, one-time expenses, such as new construction projects, were funded.
Berkowitz said the federal government should either pay counties back for the National Forest lands it created in 1908 or "give back the National Forests."
"If they're not going to pay for it and keep their word, they need to give us back the property," he said. "It's just like a sale, (and) they're in default."
Del Norte County's roads department will likely experience harsher repercussions if these bills aren't pushed through, however.
"It's devastating (and) it has lots of ramifications," said Ernie Perry, county community development director. "(The community) will see a deterioration in the county's road system."
The county roads department received $1.2 million in federal funds last year, which translates to about 20 percent of its $5.8 million annual budget.
Perry said the loss would not just affect the county's ability to maintain operations, but would hurt its ability to compete for grants, as match monies wouldn't be available.
The Sheriff's Search and Rescue team would also feel the pinch, Perry said, as funds to buy equipment would be eliminated.
And the resource advisory committee, which received $182,000 last year and recently funded the installation of restrooms near the Smith River, would be eliminated.
"The good news is Congressman Mike Thompson, D-Calif., has been a supporter of reauthorization since day one," Perry said.
If these bills don't make headway, however, a backup plan may be available, but at a cost to school districts and of no help to county roads.
State Sen. Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley, last week authored legislation that would provide rural schools and districts up to $32 million in short-term loans.
The Del Norte County School District would be up for $1.3 million, but as Berkowitz points out, those funds have a payback deadline of June 30, 2008, which only further hurt schools.
"If the federal government doesn't act, that would be an additional burden on the schools," he said. "With no new money, they would be forced into further debt."
Schools Superintendent Jan Moorehouse said she hopes the bill receives the support it deserves and "we really do hope that when the moment comes for the president to sign the bill, our state governor, a Republican governor in a high-profile state, will be willing to call our president and urge him to sign this bill."