By Sam Levin, The Guardian
Local sheriffs’ offices and government agencies are unsure of how to recover their losses, while an Oregon judge says militia members should foot the bill
The Oregon militia standoff cost taxpayers more than $3 million, burdening local sheriffs’ offices and government agencies across the state and leaving officials uncertain how they are going to recover the significant losses.
The armed occupation of the Malheur national wildlife refuge, which began 2 January and ended 11 February after a
dramatic standoff with the FBI, forced police agencies throughout Oregon to devote resources to the response, while also requiring schools and multiple federal departments to halt their work in rural Harney County for more than a month.
The estimated more than $3 million, which officials say is significantly lower than the total costs, covers the activities of the Oregon state police, more than 35 local police and sheriffs’ agencies and the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which had to keep paying the more than 100 workers unable to work as the 41-day standoff dragged on.
The figure does not includes the expenses of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which runs the refuge, nor the very significant costs of the FBI, which had a consistent presence at the standoff and is continuing now with its investigation.
“Where this is unprecedented is every sheriff’s office in the state of Oregon had resources involved in this situation,” said Brian Wolfe, president of the Oregon state sheriffs’ association. “For some of the sheriff’s offices, the impact was very substantial … and there are some costs that probably aren’t reflected.”
Ammon Bundy and a crew of armed anti-government activists took over a number of federal buildings at the headquarters of the wildlife sanctuary in a remote part of eastern Oregon to protest government land-use regulations.
Soon after the militia seized the federal land, the Harney County sheriff’s office, along with the FBI and Oregon state police, set up a joint command center to run operations, which was one of many local expenses.
The Oregon state police had 149 staff members respond to Harney County in January alone, working a total of more than 6,000 regular work hours plus 5,700 hours of overtime, according to a recent state budget analysis. The total cost of wages, mileage and lodging for the state police force was $944,000 – and that’s only for January. Officials say they have not yet calculated costs for February.
Meanwhile, sheriff’s offices from all regions of the state – not including Harney County – spent a total of $788,000 to respond to the occupation. That amount covered wages, mileage, equipment and other costs tied to the nearly 200 officers working on it.
Harney County and the local towns of Hines and Burns, the closest municipalities to the refuge, spent roughly $500,000 in January for wages and other expenses, including school closures in the first week of the protests.
At a Portland hearing on Wednesday, Bundy and more than a dozen Oregon militia protesters who were also arrested pleaded not guilty for their role in the occupation.
“I am openly offended at what this cost the state and the nation,” said judge Steve Grasty, of Harney County, who has repeatedly expressed outrage about the hefty expenses since the beginning of the occupation. “I want everybody to know how much this cost.”
He added: “That is a huge portion of our entire budget. We just don’t have a way to make that up.”
The FBI on Tuesday finished evidence collection at the refuge, which is still closed to the public and will soon return to the control of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. FBI spokeswoman Beth Anne Steele said the agency was not prepared to release cost estimates.
The BLM – which rightwing protesters wanted removed from public lands in Oregon – has roughly 90 full-time employees and 20 part-time employees that work in the Burns area, said bureau spokesman Michael Campbell. He said costs of the closure of the BLM’s local office from 4 January to 9 February was roughly $425,000.
The Burns Paiute tribe – the federally recognized local Native American tribe that was very critical of the occupation – also spent roughly $60,000 on law enforcement and $90,000 to take an inventory of artifacts at the refuge and to monitor the protests, according to the Oregonian.
Oregon governor Kate Brown has asked lawmakers to set aside $1m for reimbursements from the state’s general fund and will determine final costs as more details on expenses become available, said spokeswoman Melissa Navas.
“We were hoping that there’d be some reimbursement from the federal government,” said Wolfe. “But we’re not sure what that’s going to look like.”
Judge Grasty said he was hoping to find a way to force the jailed militia members to pay Harney County’s costs, although it remains to be seen if there is any legal mechanism available at the local level. “We are at least going to send them a bill,” Grasty said.
Even if the federal courts force the leaders of the militia to pay some kind of restitution as part of their sentence, Wolfe said he was not confident it would help local offices recoup expenses.
“I don’t anticipate seeing a big check from those folks anytime soon or ever,” he said.