News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

Fire survivor tax bill win ‘bitter-sweet’

The passage of two bills providing tax relief for wildfire survivors earlier this month in the Oregon legislature was a “bitter-sweet” victory for Rep. Jami Cate.

The Lebanon Republican strongly lobbied for bills that exempted legal damages for the 2020 Labor Day fires from income taxes, and that reset property taxes for survivors who rebuilt.

Cate told The Canyon Weekly these two bills will help many residents in her district, including those who survived the Santiam Fire. But she also felt like more could have been done sooner.

“I’m still frustrated that it’s taken this long to get common-sense tax relief for victims to prevent the state and counties from taking more tax from victims than if the fires hadn’t happened,” she said. “That is time I so wish we could have spent fighting to help even more victims have the chance to return home.”

Working closely with Cate was Sen. Fred Girod (R-Stayton), who sponsored the property tax relief bill. The Canyon Weekly reached out to Girod for this article and did not hear back by deadline.

The Santiam Fire was sparked Sept. 7, 2020, when PacifiCorp’s power lines were damaged during high heat and wind conditions. More than 400,000 acres were burned, roughly 1,500 structures were destroyed and five people were killed.

Thousands of local residents were displaced and many have yet to rebuild, often due to being underinsured, from supply chain delays, or because of the traumatic impacts of returning home. Many who did rebuild then encountered increased property taxes due to the new construction.

Additionally those who have settled for legal damages with PacifiCorp have kept as little as 20% of the payouts after legal fees and state and federal taxes.

Cate said the “magnitude of the devastation” from this and other fires in 2020 prompted lawmakers to intervene.

“When you have entire towns destroyed, many of which were already pushing the viability of their infrastructure to support a community, there is no way they can recover on their own,” she said. “…To have so much rebuilding needing to happen, all at once, during a pandemic and supply chain issues, and in the middle of a housing shortage, it became necessary to think of other ways to get these people housed.”

The initial effort was a pair of similar bills introduced in 2023, but both died in committee. The proposals which passed this year were fundamentally the same.

Cate said she could not say what differences, if any, allowed these new versions to succeed. She did say supporters really brought their A-game this session and “weren’t holding back any effort.”

Both SB 1520 and SB 1545 passed unanimously in both chambers. Cate said “no amount of thank yous would ever suffice” for this level of support and said she was particularly grateful to the committee chairs who helped the bills meet vital deadlines.

“It’s easy to forget the extent of the devastation when it isn’t your daily reality,” said Cate, “and with all the issues clamoring for the legislature’s attention it would have been easy to once again put our wildfire victims on the back burner until we were out of time.”

This overwhelming support is also a strong indication, she said, that Gov. Tina Kotek will sign them into law.

As far as next steps, Cate said fire survivors can talk to their county leaders about enrolling in the property tax relief program once county commissioners establish the appropriate policies. Survivors who received wildfire settlements can also speak with their accountants about the income tax exemptions, including those who already paid taxes on their payouts.

Cate said the legislature can still take further steps to invest in wildfire recovery, such as infrastructure funding for towns like Gates and Detroit which were virtually destroyed in 2020. She said there are also opportunities to expand on the recently-passed bills to ensure this relief is accessible to future survivors.

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