When the feds own the lion’s share
Uncle Sam owns about one out of every four acres in the United States, draining local property taxes that fund county services. To help counties get the money they need to police that property, the Washington-based National Association of Counties (NACo) is lobbying Congress to increase spending to counties in 2006.
Not surprisingly, Alaska has both the largest number of acres — nearly 28 million — and the highest percentage of federal land — about 81 percent. Nevada is next at about 79 percent, followed by Utah and Idaho with nearly 60 percent each. The phenomenon, however, is not restricted to western states. Pocahontas County, W. Va., for example, has 940 square miles, 53 percent of which are in the Monongahela National Forest. Yet the county governments are responsible for public safety and road maintenance in those areas.
Prodded by NACo’s western members confronting just such a scenario, Congress proposed a solution in 1976: the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) Act. Under the PILT program, counties receive a payment each year for tax-exempt federal lands within their boundaries such as those administered by the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.
“I don’t know what we’d do without PILT,” says Linda Matthews, a commissioner in Hinsdale County, Colo. “We have 676,515 acres of federal land in Hinsdale County, and there are only about 37,000 acres of private land. That’s 95 percent of my county that can’t be taxed. And in the summer months, our population swells as much as eight-fold. All those visitors require a safe, clean environment, not to mention the folks who get into trouble.”
Counties can use the funds for any governmental purpose, but because many of the “entitlement acres” are popular recreation destinations, counties often use the funding for search and rescue, law enforcement and access road maintenance, as well as solid waste disposal, water and sewer, health care and education. Recently wildland fire suppression and hazardous fuel management also have become top priorities.
Since the PILT Act’s 1994 reauthorization, presidential budgets and congressional appropriations have fallen far short of the program’s authorized funding level. Last month, however, as the House was considering its version of the 2006 Interior Appropriations bill, an amendment was offered to increase PILT spending to $242 million — $42 million more than the president’s budget and about $15 million more than 2005 appropriations. The amendment was sponsored by Reps. Barbara Cubin, R-Wyo., Nick J. Rahall II, D-W. Va., Chris Cannon, R-Utah, and Mark Udall, D-Colo., and was approved by voice vote, signaling bi-partisan consensus.
“I commend the House for doing the right thing and increasing the funding level for PILT,” says Sherry Krulitz, a commissioner in Shoshone County, Idaho, (which is 75 percent federally owned) and NACo Public Lands Committee Chair. “Counties with significant federal land holdings could not have sustained even basic local services if the president’s cut had been allowed to stand.”
At a June 9 meeting, the Senate Committee on Appropriations proposed spending $235 million for PILT, an amount, though lower than the House’s $242 million, would still be record funding for the program.
Paul Beddoe is associate legislative director for Washington-based National Association of Counties.