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 Fly-in finds broad support for PILT, no money… yet

By Charles Taylor
SENIOR STAFF WRITER


Payment in Lieu of Taxes — or PILT — isn’t just a Western issue, though most of the U.S. counties with vast amounts of non-taxable federal land are west of the 100th meridian, the longitude line running from North Dakota through Texas.

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Commission Chairman Danny Monette, Socorro County, N.M., shows House and Senate staffers a map of the amount of non-taxable federal land in his county (more than 1.5 million acres) during a Capitol Hill briefing on PILT.

That’s one of the points county leaders from 15 states drove home in Washington, D.C. during NACo’s PILT Fly-in earlier this month.

They were encouraged by the feedback they received from lawmakers and Administration officials, but the question remains, where would the money come from to make PILT a priority with guaranteed funding for FY14 and beyond?

“Virtually all of them were very supportive of the idea of the federal government making payments to the counties,” said Judge Alvin Black, Montgomery County, Ark., where 70 percent of county land is under federal ownership, mostly in the Ouachita National Forest. “The only reservation was when they got to talking about how we’re going to pay for it,” he added, referring to Congress, “because they seem to want everything to be a deficit-neutral action now.”

Congress has yet to approve continued mandatory PILT funding for next fiscal year. Without it, PILT would revert to a discretionary program subject to the annual appropriations process, jeopardizing its long-term survival.

The fly-in was organized by NACo’s Western Interstate Region (WIR) to urge Congress to mandate funding for the program. Fanning out across the Capitol, NACo members’ appointments included meetings with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho). The county leaders stressed that PILT has always enjoyed bipartisan support, which the lawmakers confirmed.

Commissioner Mike Murray, Lewis and Clark County, Mont. and NACo Public Lands Committee chair, called the meetings “positive.”

“I think we reinforced with the Congress folks why we need the funding. That we’re not asking for something that is new or different,” he said. “We’re asking them to continue funding that we need to run our counties.

“We don’t let taxpayers have tax holidays, nor do we expect the federal government to take a tax holiday and not fund payment in lieu of taxes.”

Bullet Click here for NACo's presentation on the PILT program

During a briefing of some 50 Senate and House staffers, Commission Chairman Danny Monette, Socorro County, N.M., said of PILT funding, “It’s hard to figure out your budget from one year to the next when you don’t know whether you’re going to get it or not.” Thirty-two of the state’s 33 counties include federal land — 2.3 million acres of New Mexico’s 4.4 million acres. His county receives about $900,000 in PILT funding, which makes up 20 percent of the general fund budget.

In a meeting at the Department of the Interior, Commissioner John Martin, Garfield County, Colo. and WIR president, said NACo wants to “be a partner in finding solutions.”

Pam Haze, Interior deputy assistant secretary for budget, finance, performance and acquisition, affirmed that the relationship with NACo and counties is “better than it’s ever been.” She said in the Administration’s budget, her department has been trying to link a longer reauthorization of PILT and authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. “We’ve tried to tie them together, so that if there can be some uplift around LWCF, it will have PILT go with it or vice versa.”

NACo adopted new policy in July at its annual conference in Tarrant County, Texas that supports designating the Land and Water Conservation Fund as a sustainable source of funding for Payment in Lieu of Taxes (see below).

Commissioner Joel Bousman, Sublette County, Wyo., explained that in his county, 206 miles of county roads are on Bureau of Land Management acreage. He said the cost to maintain those roads is $1.8 million, while the county receives $446,000 in PILT money. “Those roads access public lands,” he said. “BLM employees use those roads just like everybody else. This isn’t a freebie; it’s not a handout; it’s not a subsidy. It is in fact payment in lieu of taxes because BLM doesn’t pay taxes on that land.”

Martin pointed out that in his county, PILT money, which comes with no strings attached, is being used to further goals the goals of President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, which aims to develop a 21st century conservation and recreation agenda.

“We took some of our PILT money and created a Conservation Youth Corps,” he said, comprising 18-to-24 year olds who participate in an eight week program doing everything from soil stabilization to repairing roads and putting in culverts. “We actually use the federal payments to work on federal lands.” Monette’s county in New Mexico is using PILT dollars as matching funds to build a health center.

*See this story online at www.countynews.org for a link to NACo’s slide presentation on the PILT program.

PILT Funding in the East

Montgomery County, Ark. sheriff’s officers were among the first called out to respond when flash flooding inundated a campground in the Ouachita National Forest in June 2010, leaving 20 people dead.

“It was about a three- or four-day operation, long hours for the guys. There were several bodies they had to look for,” Sheriff David White said.

The Forest Service and other federal agencies own approximately 70 percent of the land in the rural county about 40 miles west of Hot Springs. That’s why continued Payment in Lieu of Taxes funding from Washington is so vital to the county, White and County Judge Alvin Black say.

“As a sheriff, you are the head of the search and rescue operation, and everybody else is an assisting agency whether it be the Forest Service, State Police, Game and Fish or whatever else,” White said.

He estimated that his office gets 30–50 calls per year to respond on federal land. It’s not always as catastrophic as the as the flooding three years ago. It can range from reports of shots fired to finding lost Boy Scouts.

PILT payments make up about 24 percent of the county’s general fund budget, Black said. “We get around $600,000 a year; if that were cut back to zero, that would be devastating.”

Congress has yet to approve PILT funding for FY14, or beyond if it’s reauthorized as a mandatory program, as public lands counties would like to see happen.

White said without PILT, the county would have few options to make up for the loss: “There really is no fluff left in the budget; we’ve been on such a lean economy for a number of years.”

“The only growth we’ve had in positions in recent years has been in law enforcement, our county sheriff’s office; nobody wants to start talking about taking those back or cutting any other people,” he said.

PILT is generally seen as a Western issue. After all, Utah received almost $54.4 million this year, and New Mexico got $34.7 million. But every state except Rhode Island received some money this fiscal year.

In the East, Collier County, Fla. received $1.2 million; Coos County, N.H. – $465,273; Rockingham County, Va. – $391,249; Ontonagon County, Mich. – $340,106; Rabun County, Ga. – $265,000; and Sussex County, N.J. – $54,506. 

Land and Water Conservation Fund

The federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) Program provides matching grants to states and local governments for the acquisition and development of public outdoor recreation areas and facilities, and funding for shared federal land acquisition and conservation strategies.

Established by Congress in 1965, it consists of revenue generated from offshore oil and gas leasing, not taxpayer dollars. The federal portion of the LWCF is used to acquire lands, waters and interests necessary to achieve the natural, cultural, wildlife and recreation management objectives of the National Park Service and other federal land management agencies.

NACo adopted policy at its Annual Conference in July calling for LWCF to be used, with few exceptions, as a “sustainable source of funding” for PILT.