In a letter to House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Ouray County, Colo. Commissioner Lynn Padgett describes how PILT payments (payments in lieu of taxes) affect her county and the services it provides to residents and visitors alike. PILT payments for 2014 were dropped from the Omnibus Budget bill in favor of increased funding for firefighting services on public lands. NACo is working to find another legislative vehicle to authorize PILT payments in the short term. Following are excerpts from Padgett's letter.
As a small-county commissioner, trying to provide adequate safety, welfare, emergency rescue and response to our entire county, when half of it is federal public lands, is expensive and tough with just 4,400 people.
The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) estimates a million visitors come to our county in the three short months of growing season in the high alpine areas above 9,000 feet elevation. Many stop in our two small towns and many are driving on a 70-mile loop of high country terrain crossing public lands and do not stop unless there is an emergency, which we respond to.
We deposit much of our PILT funds directly into our Road and Bridge Fund, to cover early season plowing (estimated at $70,000 per year), which is necessary to get the high-country roads open prior to July 4. We use the funds for grading, mag-chloride and road base materials. We fund our sheriff, emergency medical service (EMS), mountain rescue, pay for porta-potties to improve sanitation conditions near trail heads, and even cost-share an alpine ranger with the financially-strapped USFS, which benefits the users of the public lands and saves lives.
As of Jan. 1, 2014, Ouray County has closed to the public one day a week due to reduced revenues. Our employees are now on a four-day workweek. This is largely due to property valuations falling during and post-recession. Over the last four years, we have had our revenues from private property mill levies decrease over 30 percent. We are still short revenues from PILT that are equivalent to funding our staff six hours per week. That's right, our 4,400-person county is served by a staff of about 60 employees the same number that we had when we had half the population and far fewer visitors.
As our revenue from property levies headed downward, fuel, materials and insurance costs rose significantly. So the $400,000 (approximately 16 percent of our revenues) we get from PILT covers our expenses to fund our employees providing health, safety and welfare services to our citizens and visitors. We are not unique among many counties that are challenged by small populations and large percentages of public lands and visitors to provide services to.
Even if your constituents' counties aren't direct beneficiaries of PILT, chances are your citizens visit or recreate, travel through, or have local governments that share multi-jurisdictional response plans with a county that does get PILT and needs PILT to provide essential services.
Raising local taxes is not an option half of our Ouray County school kids are on free or reduced lunch programs, according to a local nonprofit providing after school and drug use prevention programs. Colorado law requires all tax increases be voted in by our citizens. And the voters voted down a 0.75 percent sales tax increase to provide a steady and dedicated funding stream to health-safety-welfare programs (yep, three-quarters of 1 percent) this past November. Our local sales tax is already close to 9 percent. Every 1 percent of sales tax in our county only generates about $500,000 in county revenue so simply raising taxes is not as common-sense as it might sound. In Colorado, commercial properties get taxed at four times the rate of residential properties so levy hikes are hard on the few small businesses we have, who are trying to make it in our communities, provide local jobs and contribute numerous times a year to our local nonprofits and schools.
Many of the 1,900-plus counties that receive PILT payments get less than $500,000 but using Ouray County as an example, these amounts are extremely significant. Especially when 28 percent of the nation is federally-owned public land concentrated in areas with significant climate and topographical challenges that increase costs of providing health, safety and welfare services, and have higher costs of living.Hero 1