From time to time, I’ve used this space to describe the unique nature of the several counties of Southwest Oregon. Politically, socially, economically – they don’t resemble any other section of the state. Now, because of some of our “differences,” folks here are starting to feel a lot of hurt. In several ways, that hurt is – and will be – self-inflicted. It’s already begun.
First, some background. Geographically, we’re isolated. Only Interstate 5 and Highway 101 on the coast run north and south through several counties. Some communities have no direct east/west access. Several are large but most land is owned by one level of government or another. Most communities are small. Timber cutting/processing is big. But – because of limited access to those government trees and given today’s sluggish economy worldwide – unemployment is high and the standard of living for many is pretty low. The economic importance of commercial fishing is not near what it used to be and likely won’t ever be again.
Population in several counties is older than typical. Several regional Vet’s Administration hospitals account for a lot of that. Retirement, too. Not much here to keep lots of young folks. So, with many older people on fixed incomes – and without the usual liberalism balance of youth – politics hereabouts is very conservative. From right-of-center to edge-of-earth. Seceding from Oregon is not uncommon talk in our neighborhood.
A lot or our county commissions, city councils, boards and the like often have people who’ve served 10-20-30 years or more. Because of that – and the fact our county-city populations are mostly small, the folks that serve and folks that elect often have close relationships. Which – in some ways – has added to our problems.
Example: a multi-county electric cooperative nearby had a member who had been on the board more than 40 years. The co-op board prided itself on almost never raising electric rates, regardless of increases in costs of power it bought. It just didn’t pay all the bills each month. The situation got so out-of-hand the federal agency that loaned the millions for all the system improvements over the years demanded a new repayment plan. Now! Or the Bonneville plug gets pulled! Rate increases – sizeable rate increases – hit the mailboxes and restructuring of the board of directors soon followed.
Another problem. Several counties have been receiving sizeable federal checks annually for years. The millions are supposed to support schools and other services because (a) the feds own so much land here and (b) the feds don’t pay taxes. So “in lieu” monies were paid under a special program – a program that’s now going away. Most everyone knew it would.
So – in the midst of our national economic troubles – these counties have been hit double. The hurting has begun. But only begun. (more…)