On May 2, Commissioner Mark Whitney of Beaver County, Utah testified on behalf of NACo before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee at a “hearing to examine payments to local governments provided through the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act and the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program and the need to provide greater fiscal certainty for resource-dependent communities with tax exempt federal lands.” Commissioner Whitney was joined on the panel by NACo Western Region Representative and Valley County, Idaho Commissioner Gordon Cruickshank; Commissioner Mike Manus of Pend Oreille County, Wash.; Mayor David Landis of Ketchikan Gateway Borough, Alaska; Mr. Mark Haggerty of Headwaters Economics; and representatives from both the U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Forest Service.
NACo’s remarks to the committee focused on the importance of PILT and SRS to counties across the nation that contain substantial amounts of federal public and federal forest land within their jurisdictions, as well as the need to implement forest management reform that will provide increased forest revenues to counties and mitigate the risk of wildfires by improving forest health.
Counties are responsible for providing numerous essential services to public lands residents and visitors, including search and rescue, law enforcement and emergency response, waste management, and many others. However, counties often face challenges in generating revenue to support these responsibilities. For example, although property taxes are one of the main general revenue sources that support public services, counties are prohibited from collecting property taxes on federal lands.
The PILT program reimburses counties to offset this lost tax revenue. 62 percent of America’s counties, boroughs and parishes contain federal public lands and thus rely on the PILT program. In total, over 1,850 counties received $452 million from the PILT program in FY 2016. Congress included full funding of PILT at $465 million in the FY2017 Omnibus spending bill. NACo’s testimony called on Congress to fully fund PILT, and thanked members for including full funding in the FY 2017 Omnibus Appropriations package.
Similarly, the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program provides funding to support essential services in counties and local school districts that contain large tracts of federal forestland. Historically, the federal government has shared 25 percent of federal forest revenues with counties to offset lost property taxes and support local services. Facing steep reductions in timber revenue sharing payments resulting from national policies that limited revenue-generating activities on federal forest lands, SRS was first enacted in 2000 as a critical safety net for forest counties. In FY 2015, SRS provided $278 million to more than 720 forest counties across 41 states, but the program expired in 2015 and has not been reauthorized. During the hearing, NACo called on Congress to reauthorize SRS and restore this obligation to America’s forest counties.
In stressing the importance of the SRS program, Commissioner Whitney, as well as Commissioner Cruickshank, highlighted the connection between SRS payments and the distribution of PILT payments. The expiration of the SRS program would change PILT funding calculations, and cause many counties to receive reduced PILT payments in addition to receiving no SRS funds.
Commissioner Whitney also discussed the need for federal forest management reform as counties face the compound threat of decreased forest revenue and declining forest health, which has resulted in the increased occurrence of catastrophic wildfires over the last several years. By reforming federal forest management policies to allow for more active management and fuels reduction, counties will be able to promote economic development in their communities while ensuring the health of our nation’s forests and public lands for generations to come.
Furthermore, Commissioner Whitney highlighted the need for Congress to solve the problem of fire borrowing, when land agencies are forced to pull money from land management accounts to pay for fire suppression. Fixing fire borrowing is an integral part of improving forest management policies, and will allow agencies to use existing tools to reduce hazardous fuels and improve the landscape.
Counties strongly advocate for full funding of PILT and reauthorization of SRS, and will work with Congress and the administration to fix fire borrowing and enact comprehensive federal forest management reforms in order to improve the economic wellbeing of public lands and federal forest counties while preserving our natural resources for future generations. NACo continues to engage with federal policymakers to ensure that the needs and interests of America’s counties are represented.