Federal squabbling threatens nonprofits
January 19, 2014
EAGLE COUNTY — Federal foot-dragging could mean millions in lost revenue for Eagle County, and could gut the county's community grant program.
Eagle County government receives $2.8 million from the feds — the Forest Service and BLM. That's money the county would have received from property taxes, but won't because the feds don't pay property taxes on federal land. Instead, the feds hand out lumps of PILT money, Payment In Lieu of Taxes … most years.
However, that PILT funding may not be included in the final spending packages to be considered in both the U.S. House and Senate this week, said Rep. Scott Tipton.
"PILT is not a grant or a gift — and it's critical for our congressional leaders to remember 'in lieu of taxes' means exactly that," said Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry. "If those lands were in private hands, Eagle County would receive tax dollars to fund schools, roads, social services and other critical needs," she said.
Colorado received nearly $32 million in PILT payments in 2013. Of that, $21 million went to counties in Colorado's 3rd Congressional District, represented by Tipton. Western Eagle County is in Tipton's district.
"This would negatively harm rural communities and would be contrary to the recently adopted budget resolution," Tipton said.
In Eagle County, 85 percent of the land is owned by the federal government — the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
The Forest Service pays Eagle County $550,000 annually in PILT money. The BLM pays $2.3 million annually, according to Eagle County's financial records.
This year the county awarded $2.3 million in community grants — the equivalent of the BLM's entire PILT payment. The commissioners pulled some of that money from the county's growing reserve funds, basically the county's savings account. Some of that PILT money goes to local nonprofits through the Eagle County's community grant program. In the 2014 budget the rest goes to the county's road and bridge fund and the general fund — the checkbook the county uses to conduct its day-to-day business.
The county commissioners decided to return to a community grant program after three years of pinching pennies. Fisher said that much money won't be available for nonprofits every year, but it was this year because the county has been careful with the taxpayers' money during the past few years.
The county received 73 requests asking for $3.7 million. Of the 60 agencies awarded grants, 28 support programs and services in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Fisher said that while Eagle County benefits from the federal lands within its boundaries, we also incur direct costs, including the additional funding required for firefighting, law enforcement and search and rescue services.
"We are charged with helping to protect the federal lands in our county on behalf of the entire nation," said Commissioner Jill Ryan. "A policy of non-reimbursement of the vital core services we provide would discourage ongoing natural resource protection from local governments."
"The commissioners will evaluate all revenues as well as the status of our own programs and services, the board's strategic priorities and our reserves before making a determination on how or if the community grant process will be funded in future years," said Kris Friel, the county's communications director. "While it may be a factor there is not a direct correlation between PILT funding and community grants. Through some thoughtful planning over the last few years the county has very healthy reserves, so the commissioners have time to strategize and prioritize future expenditures. With that said, we certainly hope the decision on PILT is short-term. We'll be in close contact with our congressional representatives and pushing for the funding to be restored."
The county sends $550,000 PILT payment from the Forest Service to the Eagle County school district, explained John Lewis, the county's finance director.
In return for giving the money to the school district, the BLM covers that $550,000 in its annual PILT payment, said John Lewis, the county's finance director. The only catch is that Eagle County has to wait 18 months for that BLM reimbursement.
In some Colorado counties, 90 percent or more of the land is federally owned and cannot be taxed. Tipton said paying PILT funds is the federal government's obligation to those counties.
Since 1976, PILT has provided critical funding to nearly 1,850 counties in 49 states.
"We are deeply concerned that Congress would turn its back on more than 1,850 counties impacted by the presence of the U.S. government's extensive holdings of public land," said Matt Chase, executive director of the National Association of Counties.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.