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Loss Of Timber Payments Cuts Deep In Oregon


You're listing to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Imagine dialing 911 and the voice on the other hand says: Sorry. Due to budget cuts, no one can help you. Well, that's the reality for tens of thousands of people in rural Oregon. Many counties in the state have cut public safety budgets due to the loss of vital timber payments. That's money from the federal government paid to counties with large national forests - in other words, land that can't be taxed.

The bill authorizing those payments has expired. And Amelia Templeton, of Oregon Public Broadcasting has the story of one county now struggling to survive without them.

AMELIA TEMPLETON, BYLINE: Josephine County, in the southwest corner of Oregon, was probably the hardest hit. The sheriff's department lost more than half of its funding. As a result, deputies no longer respond to emergency calls in the evenings or on the weekends. Calls like this one, made just last August.


TEMPLETON: The threat she was reporting was real. Her ex was wanted by the state police for parole violations. We're not using the woman's name because it's NPR's policy not to name the victims of sexual assault. She told dispatch her ex had hurt her before.


TEMPLETON: The call came in on a Saturday at 4:58 in the morning. None of the sheriff's deputies in Josephine County were on duty. So dispatch transferred the call to the Oregon State Police, but they also didn't have anyone available.


TEMPLETON: The dispatcher stays on the phone with the woman for 10 minutes and 21 seconds. She tells the caller to try to hide in the house.


TEMPLETON: And four times in total, she says there isn't anyone who can help.


TEMPLETON: According to police records, a few minutes later, the woman's ex-boyfriend, Michael Bellah, used a piece of metal to pry open her front door. He then attacked her. Eventually, state police arrested him, and he pleaded guilty to sexual assault and sodomy, among other charges.

SHERIFF GIL GILBERTSON: There isn't a day go by that we don't have another victim.

TEMPLETON: That's Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson. He didn't want to comment on this particular case. But after the budget cuts went into effect, he sent out a press release. In it, he warned victims of domestic violence to, quote, "consider relocating to an area with adequate law enforcement services."

GILBERTSON: There's absolutely no consequences to committing a crime today given the fact that law enforcement is as weak as it is.

CHRIS MALLETTE: The whole system has crumbled, and we're the only ones left. And we don't have the badge, and we don't have the gun.

TEMPLETON: Chris Mallette provides counseling and social services to victims of domestic violence and rape in Josephine County. Mallette says she's seen women give up on trying to get help from law enforcement and choose instead to stay with their abusers.

MALLETTE: Because they're more likely to get killed if they leave, and when they know that there's not going to be a police response, they are a lot less likely to take those steps.

TEMPLETON: For years, Mallette says, federal timber payments funded good public safety in this county. They also kept local tax rates low. Now, she says, it's time for Josephine County residents to start paying for their community's safety. A tax increase to fund public safety is before Josephine County voters in a special election today. For NPR News, I'm Amelia Templeton in Medford, Oregon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.