Grant County commissioners Jim Hamsher and Sam Palmer arrived in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 9 for a four-day stay that included a visit to Capitol Hill on Sept. 11 to advocate for more permanent solutions for Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) and Secure Rural Schools (SRS) funding.
The two commissioners joined about 100 other county officials for the PILT Fly-In, hosted by the National Association for Counties.
Hamsher said there is a push to not only reauthorize PILT funding but to create a 10-year reauthorization, and to create an endowment for SRS funding to help stabilize the counties that rely on the funding.
About 61% of counties in the U.S. rely on the funding because a major portion of their areas include federally owned land, which cannot be taxed.
Hamsher said having a 10-year reauthorization of PILT, instead of the current annual authorizations, would make it easier for counties, cities and schools to create their budget plans, instead of waiting every year to see what percentage they’ll authorize or if they’re going to reauthorize the SRS funding.
“It’s very tough for everybody to try to guess,” he said.
Grant County received $924,601 in PILT funding for fiscal year 2019, and approximately $4 million in SRS payments for fiscal year 2018. More than 60 percent of land in the county is publicly owned.
He said one of the important points he made was, although they may have lost population in their towns and schools, they still have the same number of buildings and roads to maintain.
“Revenues have decreased, especially with the reduction in timber receipts for our county because, historically, we would have been getting 25% of all the timber receipts,” he said. “Now we have to have that SRS money to try to fill that stopgap in funding, and PILT is really just a way for the federal government to pay property taxes on their federally owned grounds.”
Hamsher said they met with members of the Senate and House of Representatives, including officials from throughout the United States, asking for their support.
“They find it very helpful when we share our personal stories of our county and our communities here,” he said.
Hamsher said he and other Oregon commissioners also met with other federal officials, including Chris French, associate deputy chief, U.S. Forest Service, speaking with him about issues concerning the regional forest plan and travel management.
Palmer said they and other members of the Eastern Oregon Counties Association who were in attendance came together “on a united front” in all the meetings.
“I really drove home the simple fact, in meeting with some of the most influential people in the free world, that their decisions have real life consequences to real life humans in the rural areas and how important that this is that they get their problems figured out for real life people because it is affecting us, not just in Grant County, but in the West now,” Palmer said.
He said he felt their voices were heard “loudly and strongly.”
“I’m very optimistic,” Palmer said, adding this was his first trip to Washington. “They know our problems and will work on them and address them.”
“I was amazed at the response we got,” he said. “In more than one meeting with these people, they actually said that if you don’t get responses back from our people, we want to know because they’ll see fit that they do or they’ll be gone. Their jobs are at stake.”
Palmer said the PILT fly-in usually has 20-30 in attendance, so having over 100 from several western states was significant.
On Sept. 16, a bipartisan group of Western senators, including Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, introduced legislation to reauthorize the PILT program for 10 years.
“The PILT program is a critical lifeline for rural counties struggling to pay for essential services like law enforcement, jails, mental health and libraries,” Wyden said. “Congress and the federal government have a moral responsibility to provide stable and reliable funding for this important program. Rural counties in Oregon and across America deserve certainty. It’s time to end the financial roller coaster they face each year.”
“Rural communities shouldn’t have to wonder if they will have the resources they need to pay their firefighters, emergency first responders, or law enforcement officials,” Merkley said. “It’s time for Congress to reauthorize the federal support counties need to pay for these critical services on a long-term basis — so families across Oregon and America have the peace of mind they deserve.”