Colorado counties face federal-funding loss tied to public lands
Ryan Summerlin January 21, 2014
Congress may have passed a broad $1.1 trillion spending bill, but it left out some important funding for rural areas like Grand County.
The Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, or PILT, provides payments to counties with tracts of public lands within in their borders, like national parks and forests. The funds are meant to offset the counties’ loss of property-tax revenue, which can’t be collected on federal lands. Last year, the PILT program dispersed around $400 million to every state except Rhode Island, as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Guam.
Colorado received just under $32 million in 2013, the fifth-most in the nation. Grand County received $894,534.
Legislators left out PILT payment renewals in the 2014 omnibus bill, putting future funding in limbo. Some members of Congress, including Colorado Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), are working to add the funding to the farm bill instead.
“Counties across the country, particularly those containing significant federal landholdings, rely on PILT funds as sizeable percentages of their budgets. Many of the same rural counties that rely on programs in the Farm Bill also depend on PILT to sustain their economies and serve their citizens,” a coalition of senators wrote in a bipartisan letter, issued Jan. 15.
The farm bill, however, has sat in Congressional gridlock since it expired in December, and it remains on shaky ground. Both the House and Senate passed farm bills in 2013, but differed on food stamp and farm subsidy policies. As they continue to negotiate the nuances, an extension on the bill is set to expire on Jan. 31.
Colorado’s Senators also introduced legislation to permently authorize PILT funding on Jan. 13, while Colorado U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), along with Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) and Joe Garcia (D-Fla.), introduced similar legislation on Jan. 15 so PILT doesn’t run into future snags.
“Permanently funding PILT reimbursements will help counties avoid massive budget shortfalls and stop untimely tax increases on citizens’ still working to recover from the recession,” Polis said in a press release.
PILT payments are calculated based on counties’ acreage of public lands and population. Local governments use the funds for services like public safety, social services and transportation. In Grand County, commissioners have primarily used the funds for road and bridge, secondarily for capital improvements. In the future, some of the money might be use to fund emergency response, according to finance director Scott Berger.
Of Colorado’s 63 counties, 55 received PILT payments in 2013, which ranged from $143 in Prowers County to $3.1 million in Mesa County. Grand County is the 13th highest-paid county in the state, and has the 10th largest total acreage of public lands.
The $894,534 Grand County received makes up only a small portion of its overall budget, which Berger said is around $30 million. Still, it provides a significant chunk of the funding to the road and bridge department.
“It’s almost a million, so it is a lot of money,” Berger said. “We could see an impact, but commissioners are doing their best not to let the recession, sequestration or any other changes at the federal or state level impact residents.”
The road and bridge fund for 2013, including PILT, was $4.7 million. Berger said if PILT payments were lost, the balance at road and bridge would likely be made up from sales tax revenues. That source of income is up compared to years since the recession, with the county collecting around $3 million last year, according to Berger.
Grand County commissioner James Newberry remains optimistic about PILT payments and ability of county government to adapt, whatever the outcome on the federal level.
“We always support our Senators, who are fighting for PILT funding,” he said. “But if it doesn’t happen, we’ll go back, revise our budget and find ways to make it happen.”
The commissioners and finance director worked to adjust the county’s budget after property valuations dropped by 13 percent last year, and Newberry said they’re prepared to adjust to future hiccups.
“Our job as commissioners, finance directors and manager is to evaluate the money we have and deal with it,” he said. “There are lots of options in a budget, so I don’t like to say the sky’s falling.”
Leia Larsen can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603.