PILT cuts

Congress must find the means to restore payments to localities for federal lands

Keywords: Durango Herald,

Colorado’s abundance of public lands is one of the state’s chief draws – for residents, businesses and visitors. Those counties rich in public lands, though, face diminished property taxes for that land, an imbalance that the federal government has historically offset with payments in lieu of taxes, known as PILT funds. These are important dollars – $31.9 million in Colorado alone – that help fund local infrastructure, emergency services and other critical needs that property taxes would otherwise purchase. The budget deal forged last week in Congress did not include PILT money; lawmakers must find a vehicle to add it.

In La Plata County, where there are 436,426 acres of federal land, the PILT money is significant: for 2014, it is expected to be nearly $623,000.

Beyond June, though, that funding is in question, as it is absent from the budget bill that Congress and President Barack Obama were at long last able to pass.

While the omission was perhaps necessary to strike the larger budgetary bargain, it puts the county budget – and others with similarly large ratios of public to private land – in a pinch to provide the services the money helps fund, with few alternate revenue options.

Fortunately, Congress has alternative means of securing the funding, and Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., are rightly working to restore it.

The funding has been secured through various appropriations measures since its inception in the 1970s. Until 2008, PILT money was secured through the general budgeting process. It was funded from 2008-2013 under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and last year a transportation funding bill paid for PILT obligations. Now, Bennet and Tipton are looking at the Farm Bill as an option; it is a sensible location and their support is critical.

Counties in Tipton’s district receive the largest share of PILT money sent to Colorado, and his advocacy for restoring the funding is important to his constituent communities and their obligations to residents and visitors.

Filling those obligations has crucial ramifications for local economies and PILT funding – linked inexorably to the public lands that draw so many people and correlative demands for services – is an essential part of the equation.

As La Plata County commissioner Julie Westendorff told The Denver Post, “Most of our search-and-rescue missions are responding on federal lands, and at least 60 percent of our missions involve people who don’t live in La Plata County.”

That is not lost on Sen. Bennet, who is on the Farm Bill conference committee and will use the position to advocate for PILT money in the measure.

“It’s very, very important to the operating budgets to counties all over Colorado, vitally important to first responders and schools. That’s the message I heard loud and clear,” Bennet said in the Post.

Tipton and Bennet, with support from Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., are right to push hard on their colleagues – particularly those from densely populated states that lack significant federal lands – to restore PILT funding through the Farm Bill reauthorization process.