Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Mike Murray is helping the National Association of Counties formulate policy on issues pertaining to federally owned lands.
Murray was in Washington, D.C., last week for meetings with other county officials to work on strategies as chairman of the public lands steering committee. The results of those talks will be used to bring the National Association of Counties message to federal lawmakers this year.
Time spent on behalf of the National Association of Counties helps give county commissioners a voice with their congressional delegations, he continued.
“They listen to Montana commissioners because we represent a portion of the voting public in Montana,” Murray added of Montana’s delegation.
Murray said his committee’s priorities for 2014 include unfunded or underfunded mandates requiring the county to pay the tab for the balance.
There are state mandates that also don’t allow the county to charge the full cost of compliance, such as that for the inspection of restaurants.
“We’re not allowed to charge our actual costs in doing that,” Murray said.
About half of this cost comes from county coffers, Murray said.
Also of concern to the National Association of Counties is the payment in lieu of taxes (PILT) made by the federal government to counties in which it has lands that are not taxed.
“We still don’t have a bill,” Murray said of the legislation that would ensure the government makes a payment in lieu of taxes to counties.
Members of Montana’s congressional delegation have given assurances that they will get a PILT payment into the spending plan now before the Senate that has already been passed by the House.
However, anything that is added to the bill must come with how it will be funded, Murray said.
Montana Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat, who is the Senate finance committee chairman, has given his assurances that he will find a way to get it added to the bill, Murray said, adding “Given his position he has the power to do that.”
Montana Rep. Steve Daines, a Republican, is also a supporter of the PILT funds for counties and joined 30 other congressmen in a letter to the House Committee on Appropriations.
The letter says eliminating PILT funds from the final bill would harm rural communities and would be contrary to the deficit-neutral reserve fund placeholder in the budget for PILT.
“The PILT program helps offset the loss of these important revenues and fulfill the federal government’s obligation to local communities with large amounts of federal land,” the Jan. 13 letter states.
“We urge you to consider the economic hardship that counties across the nation will face if the PILT program is not given consistent funding,” the letter continues as it asks consideration for this source of funds for counties.
Payment in lieu of tax funds are critically important to Lewis and Clark County.
For this fiscal year, which ends June 30, the county is to receive $2,184,611 in PILT money, said Nancy Everson, the county’s finance director.
“It would be an almost impossible task to make up that funding if we didn’t have PILT,” Murray said.
This fiscal year’s payment represents 100 percent of what the federal government should be paying based on its holdings in the county.
Typically the federal government has provided the county with about 60 percent of the full PILT payment, Everson said.
Federal and state government lands locally amount to about 66 percent, Murray said. Additional figures for a more specific breakdown were not immediately available from county officials.
The payment wasn’t included in the budget and was inserted into the bailout bill in 2008 with full funding for seven years, she added.
With full funding, the county has about $700,000 more than based on historic levels. What the future holds is less certain.
“We have an expectation we will get the PILT payment … but we don’t know the extent they will fund it,” Everson said.
About $1.7 million of the PILT funds went to the county’s general fund — this is the workhorse among local government budgets and many of the services people expect come from it.
The general fund for this fiscal year is based on estimated revenues of $10.5 million, Everson said, of which almost 17 percent is PILT money.
Should PILT funding be reduced to those historic levels, the county’s general fund would be looking at an almost 6 percent reduction, she added.
Other federal funding
Another source of federal funds that counties rely on could be in an even more precarious position.
Counties receive funds through a program called Secure Rural Schools that provides money for county roads and for schools. About two-thirds of this funding goes to roads here in Lewis and Clark County.
The funds are significant for the county’s roads, Murray said, adding that sooner or later this funding will be discontinued.
The money was formerly a payment for counties based on the timber harvested on national forest lands, Everson said. The “timber receipt money,” as it is known, was reauthorized for a year and the county expects to receive close to the $446,000 it received in fiscal 2013.
There is less timber harvested on forest lands now and an argument can be made for the discontinuation of this payment, Everson noted.
Because of the uncertainty of this money, the county has taken the portion for the road department and used it to fund capital improvements, which pays for replacement equipment and new purchases that in a single year might be otherwise unaffordable.
Murray will join other National Association of Counties committees to formulate priorities and either endorse them or decline to. His role as the committee chairman will be to take recommendations to the full board.
This will include recommendations he doesn’t support, such as a call for states to take control of federal lands within their borders. The lands could then be sold possibly for development.
Should such a historic land transfer ever come to pass, “It means we’d be responsible for all of the costs of fire suppression,” Murray said.
And the state would be responsible for funding the payment in lieu of taxes that’s currently paid by the federal government, he added.
He anticipates bringing an advocate with him to argue for issues that he doesn’t support.
The call for taking control of forest lands began in Utah, Murray said, and has spread to Nevada. Wyoming and Colorado’s county commissioners are considering it, too, although he said it’s not supported by commissioners in Montana.
Another of the recommendations that may come from his committee is to fault the Forest Service for not properly managing its lands.
Forest land management, Murray said, is a 50-year-old problem and can’t be expected to be resolved by the Forest Service in a year or two.
Requiring posting of a bond by those who sue the Forest Service regarding its land management could be yet another recommendation he notes that may emerge from his committee.
“That’s my concern with this. What we need to do is work with the Forest Service to clean up the mess our forest is in due to bug kill and a lack of harvest,” Murray said.