WESTERN SAN JUANS – County officials throughout the region are breathing a tentative sigh of relief as the week comes to a close that a federal program providing critical federal dollars to many rural counties may get funded through the pending farm bill.
The program, known as PILT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes), was dropped from the omnibus appropriations bill that was passed in the House on Monday and is expected to pass in the Senate by the end of this weekend.
A bipartisan coalition of western lawmakers including senators Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Michael Bennet and Congressman Scott Tipton of Colorado have been scrambling to find an alternate vehicle for funding the program, which pays rural counties to offset lost property tax revenues due to having large tracts of nontaxable federally owned lands within their boundaries.
On Thursday, the bipartisan coalition sent a letter to farm bill conference committee leaders requesting that PILT be tacked onto their bill. Meanwhile, rural counties across the west also went into full lobbying mode, making the case for why PILT funds are so critical in states that have millions of acres of nontaxable federally managed land.
A reduction or elimination of that funding would be particularly devastating for many southwestern Colorado counties that have already had to make severe budget cuts due to dwindling property tax revenues following the economic downturn.
Ouray County Commissioners, for example, recently approved a stripped-down budget for 2014 that includes a 10 percent reduction in full-time county employees’ work weeks, and the closure of the Ouray County Courthouse on Fridays starting in January 2014. That’s factoring in 90 percent of the county’s full allotment of PILT funding, equating to $331,221.
If those PILT funds don’t come through, the county’s Road and Bridge Department would be particularly hard-hit, said Ouray County Commissioner Lynn Padgett. That’s because a significant portion of PILT funds flowing into Ouray County are earmarked for the Road and Bridge Fund. The loss of those funds would mean that the county would have less money for applying road base and crushed rock to county roads, applying magnesium chloride for dust control, and conducting spring snowplowing of high country roads to open them for 4WD traffic.
San Miguel County would also be hard-hit if PILT is not funded. Commissioners in San Miguel County budgeted for $400,000 in PILT funds in the county’s 2014 budget – about half the amount to which the county is entitled.
“It would hit the general fund the worst - administration, building, planning, nursing, attorney, Sheriff, treasurer and the clerk and recorder,” said San Miguel County Administrator Lynn Black. “But I don’t want to think about it because we’ve made so many cuts in our budget as it is with weak property taxes.
Padgett has made a point throughout her term as a Ouray County Commissioner of trying to educate lawmakers on Capitol Hill about the critical role that PILT plays in the rural west. She spent most of Thursday this week on the phone with Colorado lawmakers and their aides in Washington, urging them to find a funding vehicle for the program.
On Friday morning, she was cautiously optimistic about PILT’s chances of getting funded through the farm bill for 2014, even though she had hoped for a longer-term solution.
“Even one year for PILT in the farm bill took a lot of really hard work by Senators Udall and Bennet and their staff,” she said. “They really get how important this is for Ouray County and counties like us. I was really wanting to see something with a multi-year authorization. Still, 2014 has already started, so whatever assurances we can get for full funding for this year right away are welcome.”