Southwest Colorado is known for its abundance of federal lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service. These lands provide the scenic backdrop for our communities, the countless recreational opportunities that draw residents and visitors to the region and a deep pool of natural resources. These attributes contribute mightily to the respective economies of Southwest Colorado, but federal lands are not subject to property taxing that pays for critical infrastructure and services in their surrounding communities. The federal government has historically offset this gap, but the funding has become somewhat uncertain. For this year, though, counties received a welcome reprieve – thanks to the work of our congressional delegation.
Payments in lieu of taxes, or PILT, provide a critical revenue source for rural counties rich with federal lands. Roads, fire protection, search-and-rescue operations, school construction and police services rely on property taxes to adequately fund them; with vast swaths of federal lands not subject to such taxes, counties already pinched for cash can find their budgets strained without PILT money. The funding is calculated based on how much federal land lies within a county, as well as its population and the receipt-sharing payments it receives. However, it has not had a secure home in the federal budget for the past two years, and whether it would be distributed at all in 2014 was uncertain until a group of lawmakers, which included Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, as well as Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet – both Democrats, pushed to have it included in the Farm Bill. Doing so delivered $760,000 to La Plata County for its 432,917 acres of federal public lands, and Montezuma County received $172,000 for 480,000 acres. This is a significant boost to strapped counties that were unsure whether the funding would arrive.
From 2008 to 2012, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act – known as the bailout – paid for PILT, and it found a one-year home in the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act in 2013. Its prognosis was looking grim for 2014 until western lawmakers flexed their collective muscle to push it into the Farm Bill, but that yielded only a one-year promise of funding. As Bennet said in a statement he and Udall released announcing the payments to counties, “PILT funding provides a necessary lifeline for many of our rural communities that face continuously shrinking budgets, and allows them to provide critical services like police and fire protection and road maintenance. We are excited about the announcement of this year’s funds, which we worked to secure. Now we need a long-term solution for PILT funding. Our local leaders shouldn’t be forced into wondering from year to year if they will receive the payments the federal government owes them.”
Bennet, Udall and Tipton were right to push hard to ensure that PILT money had a funding mechanism for 2014 and are wise to turn their attention to the longer view: how to keep the money flowing to the 1,900 counties that rely on it to provide essential services in 2015 and beyond.