Since 2017, Oregon has used nearly $13 million from the Common School Fund to remove abandoned and neglected boats from waterways. But Oregon’s top elected officials want that to end.
The Common School Fund is supervised by the State Land Board, which consists of three of the state’s top elected leaders: Gov. Kate Brown, Secretary of State Shemia Fagan and State Treasurer Tobias Read. The board wants money to clean up the boats to come from somewhere else.
“Oregon’s school kids foot the bill for cleaning up abandoned and derelict vessels,” Department of State Lands director Vicki Walker said at a board meeting. “Every dollar spent cleaning up these messes is a dollar out of the classroom.”
The Common School Fund is a special bucket of money that is generated through property and timber sales on land dedicated to funding education dating back to Oregon becoming a state. The fund currently sits at $2.2 billion, with 3.5% distributed to schools twice a year equating to more than $150 million. It’s an important, but relatively small source of school funding compared to the State School Fund, which is funded largely by income taxes controlled by the Oregon Legislature.
Often, the State Land Department can operate on its own revenue, but when there is a project with a big price tag, the department will reach into the Common School Fund.
In June, the State Land Board directed the department to request $40 million in state general funds to create a state program to address the hundreds of commercial and recreational vessels littering Oregon’s waterways. If the request is approved, an estimated 175 recreational boats in the Portland metro area would be removed, but not until 2024 or 2025.
Tuesday’s State Land Board meeting emphasized the need to remove 19 known commercial vessels of concern, including the emergency removal of the Tourist No. 2, a 1920s river ferry, that began sinking in the Columbia near Astoria. Cleaning up that vessel alone is expected to cost over $1 million.
Pollutants have been removed from the vessel by the US Coast Guard, Walker said, but the vessel’s poor condition, proximity to a fuel dock and the navigational channel present an imminent threat to public health and safety.
“Not taking action to remove this hazard from the water is not an option,” she said. “But Oregon’s schoolchildren are paying yet again to clean up a mess created by an irresponsible vessel owner.”
Walker said the owner did have insurance for the vessel, but that the department would be going after them for costs.
Walker said the department has work to do as far as creating a program and plan for removing the derelict vessels. She said the state does not have a comprehensive list of these abandoned vessels. Many need an inspection to evaluate the condition, the contamination levels, and the environmental and physical hazards.
“So that we can prioritize the most dangerous vessels needing our quicker action,” Walker said.
The department must submit its budget, including the $40 million dollar request, by September. It will then be reviewed by the governor’s office and submitted to the legislature for approval as part of the state budget for 2023-25.