Published April 24, 2020
Letter Written by Beaverhead County Commissioner Mike McGinley, MACo Fiscal Officer
County governments across Montana and the nation face budget shortfalls as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is no surprise when local small businesses and the agriculture industry struggle financially through this pandemic, that the effect will be felt by all. This will include local governments and their requirement to provide local services.
So far, the federal government has not provided direct aid to rural public land counties. Congress is currently discussing a plan to deliver more aid to local governments in the NEXT stimulus bill. I believe their proposal must include full, permanent funding solutions for the Payment-In-Lieu of Taxes (PILT), Secure Rural Schools (SRS) and Refuge Revenue Sharing (RRS).
Congress already has legislation ready to ensure these programs are permanently funded. These Acts are Permanently Authorizing PILT Act, which makes PILT a mandatory spending program, and the Forest Management for Rural Stability Act, which creates a permanent endowment fund to guarantee SRS and RRS payments while making key reforms to increase timber harvest from our National Forests. I am proud to mention that both Montana Senators and our Montana Representative have signed onto these important county bills.
Counties cannot collect property taxes on federally-owned lands. PILT helps make up for this. Last year, Montana counties received $33,990,000 in PILT. Beaverhead County received $799,768 from PILT in 2019 and used the funds for airport, road, law enforcement, senior citizen transportation, courthouse repairs, and general fund.
Additionally, SRS funds assist national forest counties that no longer benefit from a robust timber receipt sharing program, due to reduced federal timber harvests. In 2019, SRS supported Montana counties with over $13,737,000 in funding. Beaverhead County received $792,498 from SRS and is mandated to spend 1/3 ($264,166) for rural schools and 2/3 ($528,332) for county transportation.
RRS will be included in the SRS endowment bill. RRS at full funding is approximately $200,000 per year and 45% of which goes to the Lima School District.
I thank the Montana Delegation for supporting this important legislation and hope for Congress to soon pass this already required responsibility of these federal land agencies as permanent funding for counties.