In the community, Local government

Malheur County gets surprise from feds: $12 million over two years

Malheur County officials recently learned they will get $6 million in federal money this year that comes with no strings attached.

“Huge – very huge,” said Dan Joyce, Malheur County judge.

“It’s great news. It’s fantastic,” said Commissioner Ron Jacobs.

The money comes through a provision of the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion-dollar federal measure approved in 2021.

One element of the legislation set aside $750 million to go to select counties over two years, beginning in 2022.

The federal bonus is significant for Malheur County, equal to the total of all property taxes to be collected for county government in this year. And it is a big addition to the total general fund revenue that was expected to be $21 million.

And the news gets better. The county will get a second $6 million payment next year.

County officials learned of the money in recent days and have yet to plan how to spend it.

The U.S. Treasury Department is in charge of handing out the money to counties with significant land owned by the federal government. The Treasury Department explains on its website that counties “may treat these funds in a similar manner to how they treat funds generated from their own revenue.”

Jonathan Shuffield of the National Association of Counties said counties can seek the funds with an online application and get the money in four to five business days. He described the money as a “significant windfall” for counties.

Oregon counties will get $113 million over the next two years. Malheur County ties with Klamath County for the most to be received, with each getting $12 million. Over two years, Baker County will get $6.5 million, Harney County $4.54 million and Grant County $4.36 million.

Malheur County officials aren’t sure what process they will use to spend the money. Joyce, the county judge, said he didn’t think the county Budget Committee would be convened.

He said he considers housing one of the county’s biggest issues that might benefit from the federal gift.

“One of the issues is finding available land to build affordable housing,” Joyce said. He said the issue comes up at “every single meeting.”

He said the county also could use help with road maintenance. He said several repaving projects were canceled when asphalt prices skyrocketed.

Jacobs had similar thoughts about the county’s top needs, citing affordable housing as “one of the big ones.” He too noted the need for road work.

Commissioner Don Hodge thinks public safety may need help.

“One of our top priorities should be the drug problem that Malheur County’s experiencing,” said Hodge. “That would be one of the top ones for me.”

Shuffield said the special county payment was engineered by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon. He said Wyden got language in the American Rescue Plan to fund the payments and subsequently worked with the Treasury Department.

He said that counties qualified if they receive what are called Payment in Lieu of Taxes -– a federal payment to counties that have significant portions owned by the federal government. He said the Treasury Department then used a formula that assessed factors in each county, ranging from historic unemployment to child poverty to household incomes.

“This federal investment in rural Oregon and all parts of our state is timely and welcome news as counties work on their communities’ needs to support roads, schools and more that all add up to a quality of life families and small businesses depend on,” Wyden said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Oregon, joined all Republicans in the House in voting against the American Rescue Plan last year.

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