Federal land program puts $500,000 in Summit County coffers
Summit County soon will receive more than $500,000 from the U.S. Department of the Interior through the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program.
The Interior Department announced yesterday it has allocated PILT payments to several counties in Colorado and throughout the country. More than 1,900 local governments will benefit from the $436 million PILT pot. Colorado counties benefited from the program to the tune of $34.5 million.
This year, as in recent years, there was uncertainty about whether counties would receive their annual PILT payments. U.S. Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, both Colorado Democrats, were among a team of congressional leaders who fought for a one-year extension of the PILT program in the 2014 Farm Bill.
“Communities throughout Colorado count on the PILT program to support schools and other essential services. I was proud to successfully work with local leaders and Sen. Bennet to include this funding in the 2014 Farm Bill,” Udall said in a news release. “However, Colorado needs a long-term solution to permanently fund the PILT program and avoid the perennial uncertainty of the federal budgeting process.”
Launched in 1976, the PILT program provides federal payments to local governments to help offset losses in property taxes due to nontaxable federal land within their boundaries. The funds help pay for critical services like search-and-rescue operations, road maintenance and fire protection.
Summit County finance director Marty Ferris said PILT dollars traditionally go into the county’s road and bridge fund to help pay for maintenance projects, as well as the sheriff’s office and search-and-rescue funds for backcountry public safety operations.
“Basically, if we didn’t receive these funds, we would be forced to raid our general fund to pay for services we have traditionally used PILT funding for,” said Summit County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier. “About 70 percent of Summit County is public lands, which we can’t generate property tax revenue from, but still provide services to give people access, so it would be really unfair not to get some funding from the feds.”
PILT represents one of two federal programs that play a vital role in the annual budget process, Stiegelmeier said. The second is the less-talked-about Secure Rural Schools Act fund, also called the Forest Fund, allocated by the U.S. Forest Service.
Similar to PILT, the fund provides payments to local governments that feature large expanses of non-taxable public lands within their boundaries, but Summit County shares its Secure Rural Schools money with the Summit School District, which also generates funding from property taxes. Like PILT, Secure Rural Schools funding has been in jeopardy during the last several years.
Although allocating PILT payments in 2014 was a significant win for Summit County, Colorado and other Western states, Stiegelmeier said federal legislators should do more to ensure the PILT and the Secure Rural Schools programs are permanently funded in the future.
“PILT has been a question mark in our budget for several years and we generally compensate by budgeting to receive half of our annual payment,” Stiegelmeier said. “But, we need to know that we can depend on these payments in the future so we can begin to put the funds toward long-term projects.”
Bennet and Udall have drafted bipartisan legislation to permanently fund and authorize the program, the release stated.
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