County Leaders Lobby for Federal Lands Money

In this July 24, 2018, file photo, Francisco Avendano, visiting from Madrid, Spain, photographs Half Dome as smoke from the Ferguson Fire hangs over Yosemite National Park, Calif.

In this July 24, 2018, file photo, Francisco Avendano, visiting from Madrid, Spain, photographs Half Dome as smoke from the Ferguson Fire hangs over Yosemite National Park, Calif. AP Photo/Noah Berger

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Local governments received $514 million last year through a program meant to compensate them for the property taxes they are unable to collect from federal lands.

Yosemite National Park may be renowned for its beauty, but it requires a lot of upkeep.

Nearly half of the trash that Mariposa County, California disposes of each year comes from the park. To pay for the maintenance, the county relies on money distributed through a federal program that compensates counties where non-taxable federal lands are located.

The Payment in Lieu of Tax (PILT) program aims to help offset the cost of county services and local officials say it is a critical resource. But the program is due to expire at the end of September unless it gets new funding, prompting county leaders to descend on the nation’s capital Wednesday to lobby members of Congress to put up more money.

Local officials got one bit of good news Wednesday as U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden announced his intention in the coming week to introduce a bill that would reauthorize PILT for 10 years.

“This is all about finally getting all of you off this roller coaster,” said the Oregon Democrat as he addressed a coalition of local officials during a National Association of Counties event held on Capitol Hill.

Federal lawmakers have proposed other changes to the PILT program this year to make it more equitable for small communities. Legislation introduced in July to would adjust the PILT funding formula to create four new population tiers so that counties with fewer than 5,000 people could receive higher payouts.

The proposal would help small rural counties that too often get pushed aside, said U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican who sponsored the bill. At least nine counties in Montana would receive more money through the proposal, which Daines stressed would not reduce payouts to larger counties.

In fiscal 2019, the U.S. Department of Interior paid $514 million to 1,900 local governments in 49 states through the PILT program. While county leaders would ultimately like the PILT program to be made permanent through legislation, they are also lobbying Congress to fund the program through fiscal 2020 appropriations. 

The $1.3 million that Mariposa County received last year through the program helps the county pay for everything from trash collection to law enforcement to search and rescue operations on federal land, said Kevin Cann, a county supervisor.

“With 4 million people coming to your county each year for the natural environment, which is rugged mountains, you end up with lots of search and rescue operations,” said Cann, who also serves as president of the National Association of Counties’ Western Interstate Region. “Those are things you can’t just not do.”

Rural and Western states, home to many large national parks and wildlife refuges, are the biggest recipients of the program. PILT funds are distributed through a formula that considers the number of acres of non-taxable federal land—including national parks— located within a jurisdiction. The program, in existence since 1977, is funded through revenue from commercial activities on public lands and has distributed more than $9.2 billion.

In some rural areas, federal land can make up as much as 90 percent of a county. With small populations, those counties have finite amount of property and income tax revenue from residents to pay for maintenance of those lands and infrastructure, said Scott Hutsell, a commissioner in Lincoln County, Washington and the president of the Washington State Association of Counties.

Lincoln County received $245,000 in PILT funding in fiscal 2019.

“If I was to take those dollars out of my budget equation right now, I lose three to four deputies out of my sheriff’s office,” Hutsell said.

While on Capitol Hill, local government officials also asked federal lawmakers to stabilize another funding source, the Secure Rural Schools program. Despite the name, the SRS program funds everything from public safety to road maintenance. The program was first authorized in 2000 to provide payments to local governments that had seen revenues from timber harvests on federal lands decline as a result of environmental policies.

The program has not been consistently reauthorized, leading concern among local leaders about budget gaps.  

Wyden and U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican, introduced legislation this year that would create an endowment fund that would incur interest that could be used to sustain the program in the long-term.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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