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DOUGLAS COUNTY — The Douglas County Board of Commissioners issued a letter to county residents Jan. 22, responding to an article printed in The Oregonian alleging they misused Title III safety net funds for lobbying trips.

The Oregonian article states the commissioners have used $94,351 since 2009 to fund pro-timber videos, among other publicity, as well as expenses of travel around the state and to Washington D.C.

It continues, stating that the spending raises questions of how Douglas County uses the funds that are part of Secure Rural Schools, an initiative created to help ease the area's dependence on the timber industry, given the county's financial issues, which led to the closure of public libraries.

The commissioners, however, note that the article does not explain the guidelines for Title III funds. They note the money is approved by the United States Congress and restricted for how it can be used. Their letter states that Title III funds can be used for educational travel, grants for Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services, and Communities for Healthy Forests.

"As much as Douglas County and the other 700 counties that received these funds would like, we are not able to use them for libraries, public safety, law enforcement, or 'basic services' as portrayed in the news articles," state the commissioners. "It is simply not legal."

The commissioners note there were times where travel expenses were paid for. They specifically mention an upgrade to a first-class flight and having a pet stay in a hotel room. The letter notes, however, that the hotel pet fee was paid for personally by the commissioner who brought their pet. They also expanded on what happened with the first-class air travel, stating that the flight only had a first-class seat available for one leg of the trip and that the extra cost was reimbursed by the commissioners.

They state that the travel around the state, and to Washington D.C., were all for educational purposes to meet with legislators to discuss updates on forest programs or to hear about changes in operations and policy. They said these count as educational, since they learn about new policies, exchange ideas with other commissioners, and attend classes or seminars during the trips.

However, according to the Oregon Bureau of Land Management FAQ on Title III funds, the funds can be used "to carry out activities under the Firewise Communities program" to teach and assist homeowners in fire-sensitive areas about landscaping, construction, and home sitting to protect against wildfires. Funds can also be used to reimburse the county for Search and Rescue operations, and other emergency services, performed in national forests and to develop community welfare protection plans.

The commissioners' letter also states the article does not accurately reflect the answers they gave. They say that they've followed the laws and guidelines for Title III funds and have extensively documented their expenses. Douglas County Management and Finance Department has also received the Government Finance Officers Association's Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting for 31 years.

"The Certificate of Achievement is the highest form of recognition in the area of governmental accounting and financial reporting, and its attainment represents a significant accomplishment by a government and its management," states the GFOA.

The commissioners also note that their travel expenses are included in the annual audit, which concluded the county is in compliance with the law. The audit is conducted by an independent third party and the auditors review all Title III expenditures.

"We have strictly followed the current law and guidelines, while documenting every dime spent," said the commissioners in their letter.

The commissioners also sent a letter to The Oregonian, responding to the article and including their full responses to the questions asked by the paper. The full letter can be found at www.co.douglas.or.us/commissioner/pdf/Unpuplished_Responses_to_the_Oregonian.pdf.

Reporter Adam Robertson can be reached at 541-297-3590, or by email at adam.robertson@theworldlink.com.

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