Colorado officials decry deletion of funds to offset cost of public lands from budget compromise

PILT monies in Northwest Colorado

County: PILT money, acres of public land

Routt: $1.47 million, 661,363

*Moffat: $554,000, 1.67 million

Mesa: $3.1 million, 1.5 million

Eagle: $2 million, 850,000

Garfield: $2.8 million, 1.2 million

Jackson: $170,00, 513,000

*Moffat collected less in PILT monies in 2013 than did Routt because revenues due to counties from federal mineral leases (FLM) within their boundaries are deducted from PILT payments. Moffat County receives FML monies than does Routt.

— The Routt County Board of Commissioners have $750,000 in this year’s budget to carry out repairs to heavily traveled Routt County Road 14 between Steamboat Springs and Stagecoach Lake State Park. But those plans could be in jeopardy after news broke this week that Congress will not appropriate $1.47 million the county was counting on to help fund the work.

The news was similar in neighboring Moffat County, where $554,663 in federal dollars won’t appear in local government coffers this year.

The funds are federal payments that counties throughout the country traditionally have received to offset the property taxes they might have collected on federal lands within their boundaries. They are formally referred to as “payments in lieu of taxes,” and commonly called PILT funds.

Congress reached a $1.1 trillion budget compromise Tuesday likely to be regarded as welcome news on many levels. But the PILT funds upon which many Colorado counties rely were a casualty.

Rural Western counties with the largest tracts of U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands logically see the biggest PILT payments. Routt County has 661,363 acres of federal lands and Moffat County has 1.67 million acres of public lands, according to Colorado Counties Inc.

Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan said this week that he and his fellow commissioners knew there was a chance the money wouldn’t be appropriated this year because of the emphasis in Washington, D.C., on reducing federal spending.

“There’s always a risk every year that it’s subject to appropriations,” Corrigan said. “There was a deal in place four years ago that guaranteed PILT for the last four years. There is no legislation that requires it. We all knew there was a heightened risk this year if it was unauthorized.”

Dealing with the loss

How will Routt County absorb the $1.47 million setback?

Corrigan said the county does not rely on the monies for annual operating expenses and instead places them in a reserve fund devoted to its Road and Bridge Department. Typically the PILT funds are used to resurface roads and to replace heavy equipment — expenditures that can be pushed back, but not indefinitely.

Corrigan said the first thing to be cut might be improvements to C.R. 14 scheduled for $750,000 in work this summer and again in 2015.

“In my mind, that would be the first thing that would go,” Corrigan said. “Especially given that Road and Bridge is where we put the money.”

His fellow Commissioner Doug Monger said it’s one thing to deplete the reserve fund for roads and bridges for one or two years. But his fear is that once the money is withheld, it will become the norm.

“We just finished a successful budget for 2014, and all of our budget discussions include looking out at a 20-year window,” Monger said.

He said giving up $1.47 million per year for 10 years or 20 years starts to add up to a

$15 million or nearly $30 million in lost revenue throughout time.

Senators’ responses

Monger said he hopes Congress will rethink de-funding PILT, and already Colorado Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet have introduced a new bill to permanently fund PILT.

“The PILT program is essential for rural communities and counties near Colorado’s public lands,” Udall was quoted as saying in a news release. “Although these stunning natural resources attract tourists and support Main Street businesses, these lands do not directly contribute to the local tax base.”

Congressman Scott Tipton, who represents Colorado’s 3rd District, including Routt and Moffat, voted against the appropriations bill that excluded funding of PILT and called the action “irresponsible” in a prepared statement.

He pointed out that Colorado received $32 million in PILT funds in 2013, and of that, $21 million went to his district where public lands comprise 80 percent of the total in some counties.

Monger said Routt County maintains the roads that lead to National Forest recreation areas, provide law enforcement and first response to wildfires.

What rankles Corrigan and Monger is their perception that because Western states with large tracts of public lands are lightly populated, they have fewer congressmen and less of a voice in Washington, where congressmen from smaller, yet more populated states with fewer acres in public lands might find it politically expedient to cut PILT payments.

“They believe (PILT payments) are entitlements that should be scrutinized,” Monger said. “This is not an entitlement. This is a moral obligation (to fund) services they are requiring us to provide so that all U.S. citizens can go and enjoy the use of public lands.”

Monger said he knows there is strong sentiment among Moffat County officials that some public lands should be returned to private ownership but said he doesn’t think Routt County is interested in a reduction of public lands.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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