Appeal tribune. (Silverton, Or.) 1999-current, June 24, 2020, Page 4, Image 4

Below is the OCR text representation for this newspapers page. It is also available as plain text as well as XML.

    4A
|
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 24, 2020
|
APPEAL TRIBUNE
Outdoors program in jeopardy from cuts
Parks and Recreation
Department facing $22
million budget shortfall
Zach Urness
Salem Statesman Journal
USA TODAY NETWORK
It has been a roller coaster of a few
months for the director of Oregon’s Of-
fice of Outdoor Recreation.
Cailin O’Brien-Feeney — who was
hired to guide outdoor recreation state-
wide in 2018 — has gone from preparing
a major report for Oregon Gov. Kate
Brown to hoping that he keeps his job
next year.
O’Brien-Feeney was
on a list of 46 people slat-
ed to be laid-off by the
Oregon Parks and Recre-
ation Department last
week due to a $22 million
budget shortfall related
O’Brien-
to
the
COVID-19
Feeney
pandemic.
That
would
have
meant the Office of Outdoor Recreation,
created by the Oregon Legislature in
2017, would have gone dark on July 1, of-
ficials said.
Two other agencies — the Oregon
Marine Board and Oregon Department
of Fish and Wildlife — stepped in to pro-
vide funding for the office for the rest of
the year, but it’s unclear where funds
will come from to carry it through 2021.
The office was projected to cost
$170,000 from July 2020 to June 2021.
To keep it going through December,
ODFW and OMB chipped in $37,500
each.
“The Office of Outdoor Recreation
has helped encourage agencies, retail-
ers and industry to work together in
support of outdoor recreation,” said
Roger Fuhrman, information and edu-
cation administrator for ODFW. “This
funding will provide time to figure out
how to continue supporting these col-
laborative efforts.”
O’Brien-Feeney said he was confi-
dent a long-term solution will be found.
“I’m confident that we’ll figure out a
way to fund the office next year, even if
we’re not sure exactly how that will hap-
pen right now,” O’Brien-Feeney told the
Statesman Journal. “It has been very af-
The Office of Outdoor Recreation, created by the Oregon Legislature in 2017, would have gone dark on July 1 because of
budget cuts, until two other agencies ponied up money to keep the office operating through the end of 2020.
ROBYN ORR / SPECIAL TO THE STATESMAN JOURNAL
firming to have other agencies see value
in the office and step in.”
The near-layoff-experience comes
just as the office prepares to release a
major report to Brown outlining 30 rec-
ommendations for improving the state’s
outdoors and recreation economy.
Previous drafts of the recommenda-
tions included everything from ways to
fund search and rescue to creating a sin-
gle Oregon Outdoors Pass.
O’Brien-Feeney also played a role in
coordinating the response from Oregon
agencies as they opened and closed rec-
reation facilities and requirements
shifted for outdoor businesses during
the pandemic.
“This work will remain important to
how the state pieces its economy back
together,” he said. “This office was set
up to be a hub between all these differ-
ent groups and agencies, and we’ve
brought so many people together
around a shared set of idea about how
we move forward. To lose that would be
tough.”
The office was slated for elimination
as Oregon’s state parks department cuts
huge expenses.
The closure of state parks and con-
tinued decline in revenue from the Ore-
gon Lottery — the agency’s two main
funding arms — has left a budget hole
that’s led to a major cutback in the rang-
ers and staff at state parks.
Additional cuts have came from cen-
tral staff, including park planners, de-
signers and those in communications,
officials said.
“Our state park services had already
suffered a dramatic workforce reduc-
tion. We didn’t want to cut into that any
deeper, so the layoffs focused on our
central staff,” said Parks and Recreation
Department spokesman Chris Havel.
“We will be working with the stakehold-
ers (agencies, nonprofits, and business-
es) to figure out how to continue the
work of the Office of Outdoor Recreation
past December.”
Without the funding, O’Brien-Feeney
would simply be laid off and the office
would sit vacant, Havel said.
Zach Urness has been an outdoors re-
porter, photographer and videographer
in Oregon for 12 years.
Urness is the author of “Best Hikes
with Kids: Oregon” and “Hiking South-
ern Oregon.”
State high court takes up PERS pension cuts
Jeff Mapes
Oregon Public Broadcasting
Lawyers representing Oregon public
employees went to the state Supreme
Court this week to argue the Legislature
went too far in reducing their pension
benefits. What they did not find was a
justice who seemed clearly sympathetic
to their arguments.
Instead, Justice Thomas Balmer, the
longest-serving member of the court,
said the justices made it clear in a previ-
ous ruling that “detrimental” changes
can be made to pension benefits as long
as they only affect the compensation
that employees receive for future work.
“We have never bought into the strong
theory of pension rights,” which is that
they can never be weakened during a
worker’s entire tenure, Balmer said.
Aruna Masih, the Portland lawyer
representing workers in the Oregon Pub-
lic Employees Retirement System, ar-
gued that the Legislature promised
workers they would give workers a cer-
tain benefit level when they revamped
the system in 2003, and “that is a prom-
ise that needs to be honored.”
Chief Justice Martha Walters
countered that the Legislature gave a
starting date for those changes but that
“doesn’t tell you when you are going to
end doing that.”
As a result of the pandemic, only three
of the justices were in the court’s Salem
chambers during the oral arguments
while the other four justices participated
by video – and those four asked few
questions.
The oral arguments only offered a
glimpse into how the justices might be
thinking. And the tenor of their ques-
tions may not reflect how they come
down in their written decision.
Oregon’s high court has frequently
dealt with pension issues as PERS has
periodically faced big financial shortfalls
over the last two decades. At the end of
last year, the system had a long-term
debt of about $24 billion, and that short-
fall is likely to rise because of the eco-
nomic downturn.
To grapple with the debt, state and lo-
cal governments and school districts
have been forced to pay higher PERS
rates for their workers over the past sev-
eral years. Those PERS rates now aver-
age 25% of payroll.
In 2019, lawmakers passed a bill
aimed at capping the rise in employer
rates. The biggest change the Legislature
made was to stretch out the repayment
period for the pension debt. But under
political pressure from major elements
of the business community — which
wanted PERS reforms in exchange for
not fighting new taxes on business for
schools — legislators also agreed to trim
pension benefits.
The measure diverted some money
out of individual retirement accounts
and put it toward paying down the debt.
Projections showed this would only
cut overall benefits by about 1% to 2% for
most workers. Another provision in the
bill lowered to $195,000 per year the
amount of salary that a pension could be
based on. So higher-paid workers could
see a bigger impact.
Public-employee unions fought hard
against the bill, which passed the Demo-
cratic-led Legislature by narrow mar-
gins. And several unions refused to fi-
nancially back Democratic lawmakers
who voted for the measure before the
May primary.
Masih argued that the Legislature un-
fairly took benefits from workers who
aren’t responsible for the pension short-
falls, which are largely due to benefits
being paid to already retired workers.
Benjamin Gutman, the solicitor gen-
eral for the state Department of Justice,
countered that workers may expect to re-
ceive a certain benefit, but that doesn’t
mean they have “earned or accrued that
yet.”
The court has no deadline for deciding
the case.
Salem has wettest start to June since 2012
Zach Urness
Salem Statesman Journal
USA TODAY NETWORK
It didn’t feel much like summer the
first half of June, but that’s beginning to
change in a big way.
Western Oregon was hit by a series of
active weather systems during the first
half of the month that brought the wet-
test start to the month since 2012.
But with the exception of a few show-
ers this weekend, warm and dry weath-
er is headed to Oregon over the next 10
days — including temperatures that ap-
proach 90 next week.
“The upper level ridge is setting up
that should keep us mostly dry and
warmer for the coming week,” National
Weather Service meteorologist Will
Ahue said.
As far as the first half of the month
goes, it was a wet one by recent stan-
dards but doesn’t stand out overall.
From June 1 to 16, Salem got 1.25 inch-
es of rain. That’s the wettest since 2012
recorded the same number and the 23rd
wettest in records that date back to the
late 1800s.
In other words, it was wet ... but not
historically wet.
“It really wasn’t a situation that was
too out of the ordinary,” Ahue said. “I
think that just because June has been so
Rain filled Detroit Lake with water and sunny skies will bring people outdoors in
the coming weeks. ZACH URNESS/STATESMAN JOURNAL
warm and dry recently, it felt different.
But it was a pretty normal early June
pattern.”
The good news is the late May and
early June rain has pushed back the
wildfire season while also filling Wil-
lamette Valley reservoirs, which now sit
at 91 percent of normal. Detroit Lake has
reached its normal summertime water
level, at 1,563.5 feet above sea level, after
being 40 feet below normal a few
months ago.
The bad news is that Oregon is still
technically in a fairly deep drought and
has melted just about all of its snow-
pack. In the most recent Drought Mon-
itor report, 78 percent of the state was in
a moderate drought.
That might seem odd, given the re-
cent weather, but it’s based on long-
term trends. Salem, for example, still is
10.67 inches below normal precipitation
levels for this time in the water year,
which begins Oct. 1. The drought being
reflected, in other words, is largely
fueled by an extremely dry start to the
season, rather than what’s happened
recently.
Since Oct. 1, Salem has gotten 36.95
inches of rain. In a normal year, it would
have received 47.65 inches.
With that deficit, and with most of
the snow melted in the mountains, an
extended hot and dry period could bring
elevated wildfire danger by July. Or, if
the weather stays cool and moist, it
could be a mellow year, as happened in
2019.
Zach Urness has been an outdoors re-
porter, photographer and videographer
in Oregon for 12 years. Urness is the au-
thor of “Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon”
and “Hiking Southern Oregon.” He can
be reached at zurness@StatesmanJour-
nal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on
Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.