A local judge in Oregon has raised the prospect of making the armed militia occupying a federal wildlife refuge pay as much as $75,000 a day for the toll the standoff is costing the rural county.
Harney County judge Steve Grasty, a vocal critic of the militia, estimates that the armed occupation led by cattle rancher Ammon Bundy cost the community roughly $60,000 to $75,000 each day of the first week of the occupation.
Grasty, an administrative judge, proposed making Bundy and his associates pay the expenses at a community meeting on Monday night in Burns, the closest town to the ongoing occupation of the Malheur national wildlife refuge.
It’s been 10 days since Bundy and a group of out-of-state militiamen stormed the federal wildlife sanctuary headquarters to protest the government’s land regulations and the imprisonment of two Harney County ranchers in an arson case.
Grasty earned loud applause from the audience when he told residents : “We’re going to send Mr Bundy the bill.”
Those costs will grow if the militia continues to ignore pleas from local residents for them to pull out. And if the standoff drags on for another week, expenses could add up to more than $1m.
“Harney County is not a wealthy county,” county spokeswoman Laura Cleland said on Tuesday, adding it was “on a very strict budget”. “These are huge costs to a county … and costs that are there only because of what Mr Bundy has done.”
She said Grasty’s estimates include the costs of law enforcement overtime, school closures last week, setting up and operating a special command center, keeping county buildings open later than usual and buying extra supplies and food for county workers.
Referencing a fact at the heart of the land-use rights dispute, Cleland also noted that the federal government controls 75% of the land in Harney County, which means the county is limited in its ability to raise property tax revenues to fund services.
Cleland, who is also a spokeswoman for the Association of Oregon Counties, said that the county court is an administrative body and that it’s unclear if Grasty alone has the authority to levy a formal fine against the militia. But Cleland said Grasty was serious about finding a way to demand that Bundy pay back the county.
Over the weekend, Grasty said that he also wants to increase local control of public property as the militia has demanded. But Grasty said that Bundy’s stunts are only straining those efforts. “I want Bundy out of here, because I cannot go and advocate for anything that gives Bundy and his armed thugs a win,” he said.
Grasty said he is exploring whether the county could pursue civil litigation to force the Bundy militia to pay the costs. At the least, he said he intends to send Bundy an invoice when this is over. “I really want people aware of the costs that these folks are giving all of us,” he said, noting that his estimates don’t include expenses outside law enforcement agencies are also incurring. “There is justification in sending them a bill if for no other reason than letting everyone know what this is costing taxpayers.”
The militia likely created additional costs for the government on Monday when Bundy and his followers destroyed part of a US Fish and Wildlife Service fence in front of news cameras.
The occupiers removed about 25 or 30 yards of fence near the occupation, according to the Oregonian. The aggressive action of the militiamen – who said they wanted to allow nearby cattle to graze on public lands – prompted a strong condemnation from the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Harney County sheriff Dave Ward and a chorus of local residents repeated their plea Monday night for the militia to go home – even if many of them agree with the anti-government message.
Local law enforcement officials have also had to spend time and resources responding to a number of armed rightwing groups, not directly affiliated with the militia, which have shown up to Burns over the last several days.
Ward, who has received death threats, said in a statement on Monday that local residents have reported an uptick in incidents of vandalism, harassment and intimidation.
Local Fish and Wildlife employees have also seen “unknown individuals from outside our community” driving slowly or idling in front of their homes, and self-identified militiamen have attempted to talk to these employees and their family members, Ward said. “Many of these confrontations are taking place as their employees are grocery shopping, running errands with their families and trying to lead their day-to day lives,” he added.
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