Western senators seek 10-year extension of county funds

WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of Western senators introduced legislation Monday that would provide long-term financial security for rural counties through a 10-year extension of a program that makes payments to local governments for the large acreage of non-taxable federal lands within their jurisdictions.

The legislation introduced by U.S. Senators Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Jim Risch, R-Idaho, Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Cory Gardner, R-Colo., would reauthorize the Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program for 10 years. The program provides critical resources to nearly 1,900 counties across 49 states. Counties have used these payments for more than 40 years to fund law enforcement, firefighting, emergency response and other essential county services.

“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.”

“Idaho’s rural counties depend on PILT funding for vital functions like law enforcement, emergency response, public health and critical transportation infrastructure,” Crapo said.  “The federal government does not pay local property taxes, which makes rural counties containing large swaths of federally-owned land face tough financial decisions.  Our legislation would provide much-needed stability to these counties so they can budget appropriately according to expected revenue and provide these essential services to local citizens and taxpayers.  I look forward to continue working in a bipartisan manner to end the financial uncertainty thousands of rural counties face nationwide.”

“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.” 

“The PILT program impacts every single county in Idaho. Without PILT funding, many rural communities throughout our state and much of the West would face economic devastation,” Risch said. “Our rural communities need a lasting solution, and we owe it to them to fulfill our obligation and reauthorize PILT.”

“PILT funding is critical for communities across Colorado that use these funds for essential services like infrastructure maintenance and law enforcement,” Bennet said. “This legislation is a common sense step to reauthorize the program, so that we can continue to fully fund PILT and meet the needs of our counties. We will continue to work toward a long-term solution for PILT that will provide counties and local governments sustained funding and more predictability.”

“The PILT program is an important resource for many counties in Colorado and across the country with large amounts of non-taxable federal land,” Gardner said. “It’s important that Congress fully funds this program, which is used for critical services like law enforcement and infrastructure investments.”

Earlier this year, Wyden, Crapo, Merkley and Risch also introduced the bipartisan Forest Management for Rural Stability Act to make the Secure Rural Schools program permanent by creating an endowment fund to provide stable, increasing and reliable funding for county services.

National Association of Counties Executive Director Matthew Chase said, “In 61 percent of the nation’s counties, the federal government is a major landowner. Counties provide critical services for residents and visitors in and around untaxable federal public lands, including roads, bridges, search and rescue, law enforcement and solid waste disposal. The PILT program represents the federal government’s commitment to these and many other services.

“This bill ensures the long-term certainty we need, instead of being susceptible to the whims of unpredictable federal funding and shifting the burden to local taxpayers and businesses. We applaud and thank Senators Wyden, Crapo, Merkley, Risch, Bennet and Gardner for working to establish a decade of stability for the PILT program. We urge Congress to fulfill its promise to public lands counties and swiftly pass this legislation.”

Clackamas County, Oregon, Commissioner Martha Schrader said, “The historical distribution of $700,000 annually from PILT prioritizes both our communities and forests in Clackamas County, and ensures predictable revenue for services.”

Harney County, Oregon, Commissioner Mark Owens said, “Having 10 years of reliable PILT payments would be a God send for Counties, we could finally plan and budget to maintain basic services for public lands.”

 Wheeler County, Oregon, Judge Lynn Morley said, “Wheeler County has relied on PILT funding to support essential services that includes safe roads, strong law enforcement and other key services. Our county is highly rural and appreciates the bipartisan effort to reauthorize this essential program for Eastern Oregon.”

A copy of the bill text is available here.