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Mon May 30 14:42:57 SAST 2016

Oregon officials want federal government, occupiers to pay for Malheur standoff

REUTERS | 13 February, 2016 09:15
Heavy equipment set up by the occupiers as a roadblock remains on the road leading to the headquarters to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside Burns, Oregon.
Image by: JIM URQUHART / REUTERS

The cost of the six-week standoff in rural Oregon that ended peacefully on Thursday will likely cost millions of dollars, with local and state agencies looking to the federal government - and the arrested occupiers - to shoulder the bulk of the bills.

The total outlay may not be known for weeks or months, but the remote location of the occupation, at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in the eastern part of the state, combined with the complexity of the law enforcement response, suggest a costly operation, said Brian Levin, a criminal justice expert at California State University San Bernardino.

"When you have an unpredictable occupation like this you have to free up a lot of personnel assets and resources," Levin said. "The cost of maintaining a multi-agency task force can get very expensive."

The protest over federal control of Western lands began in early January and ended Thursday when the final four holdouts surrendered.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown is seeking up to $1 million from the state legislature to offset expenditures by counties and towns, and said the state in turn would seek reimbursement from the federal government.

Ron Hosko, former assistant director of the FBI's criminal investigative division, said while the FBI will pay for its own personnel, the state of Oregon and the affected counties will likely be expected to cover their own costs. "It's going to be every agency for themselves," he said.

The governor's $1 million figure, equal to half of the law enforcement budget of Harney County where the refuge is located, is based on the estimated cost of personnel, transportation and lodging incurred by the state's 36 counties, which all sent reinforcements to help Harney County deal with the occupation, said Kristen Grainger, a spokeswoman for Brown.

Harney County alone spent nearly $240,000 through the end of January, the latest figures available, said Laura Cleland, who was contracted to act as the county's temporary spokeswoman during the standoff. Cleland's $6,400 monthly fee is included in the county's tabulation of the standoff cost.

Harney County Judge Steven Grasty, who also serves on the county commission, said the total cost to the county could reach $500,000. Grasty said the county plans to seek reimbursement directly from the occupiers, and is prepared to take legal action.

"If you're going to come in and undo a little a community, come prepared to pay the cost of it," he said.

Other agencies and municipalities are also beginning to weigh in. The week-long closure of public schools in the area in early January over safety concerns adds $160,000 in teacher salaries and other expenses to the bill. The city of Burns, closest to the refuge, incurred $30,000, neighboring Hines spent about $25,000.

Figures are not yet available for the costs of repairing the damage to the refuge itself, a popular bird sanctuary operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

On Friday, the FBI said it had deployed its Art Crime Team, trained in cultural property investigations, to work with the Burns Paiute Tribe to identify and document damage to the tribe's artifacts and sacred burial grounds located at the sanctuary, a process they estimated would likely take weeks.

The FBI declined to provide budget information on the standoff but a law enforcement official estimated that a minimum of 90 federal agents would have been required to staff the three checkpoints set up outside the standoff compound 24 hours a day.

The U.S. Attorney's office will be looking into whether the federal government will join the county in seeking reimbursement from the occupiers, the source said.

The FBI could go to Congress and request supplemental funding, but the agency would likely simply dip into its cash reserves, Hosko said.

"You respond first, and people back in headquarters are saying, 'Hey, do what you got to do,' " Hosko said. " 'And that may mean other good ideas are cut out because we spend on this.'"

The standoff did bring some benefit to the local economy in the normally sluggish winter season. Business was triple the norm at the Silver Spur Motel in Burns, where rooms run from $40 to $60 a night, said owner Robert Carlson.

The Bella Java coffee shop hired two workers after receiving an order from law enforcement for a week's worth of meals, including biscuits with gravy and chicken wraps, said Tammy DeLange, store manager. "It was a huge financial boost," she said.

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