Farm bill salvages Routt County’s $1.47 million in federal property tax offsets | SteamboatToday.com

Farm bill salvages Routt County’s $1.47 million in federal property tax offsets

— The passage by Congress of the federal farm bill Wednesday offered a one-year reprieve for $1.47 million in federal funding that Routt County has been counting on to help carry out improvements to Routt County Road 14 this summer.

The funds comprise payments in lieu of taxes, or PILT, that Congress typically appropriates each year to compensate local governments for the property taxes they forgo on federal lands.

The monies have been a source of concern for Routt County this year, as well as for rural counties across the West. Earlier this month, PILT funds were left out of the federal budget bill. Now, they've been added back to a contentious farm bill that emerged this week from conference committee with bipartisan support. It's that bipartisan support that pulled the PILT monies out of limbo.

"The loss of $1.5 million would (have been) a significant negative impact on our ability to fund capital projects within the pay-as-you-go fiscal policy," County Manager Tom Sullivan said Wednesday.

"Prior to 2004 or 2005, we received less than full funding, and as low as 50 percent. The history has been something that we have had to deal with every year and likely since the inception of the funding in the early 1970s," he said.

Passage of the farm bill assures only that rural counties receive their 2014 PILT funds. Next year's funding still would be subject to appropriation by Congress.

While hailing the PILT deal, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennett was quoted in a prepared statement as saying budgeting from year to year without being able to count on those funds is a problem for small governments.

"Rural communities in Colorado and across the country rely on these critical resources to provide basic services like police and fire protection and road maintenance," Bennet was quoted as saying.

"This extension means they can move forward with their budget and plan for the rest of this year. At the same time, we need to provide more certainty for these communities in the long term rather than force them to wonder year to year whether Washington will live up to its end of the bargain," Bennet said.

Routt County Board of Commissioners Chairman Tim Corrigan said Jan. 15 that Routt County historically has avoided relying on PILT monies for its operating budget, deciding instead to put them in a fund for road maintenance. If the $1.47 million were to not come in, sacrificing the improvements to C.R. 14, one of the primary routes from Steamboat to Stagecoach, presented a logical sacrifice, he said.

Sullivan said this week that the commissioners since have contemplated using 2013 PILT funds to do at least part of the scheduled work on C.R. 14 this year and perhaps dip into reserves to do a little more. The county would like to spend $750,000 in 2014 and another $750,000 in 2015.

"Basically, because PILT always comes in late in the year, the funding we received in 2013 is what we have in 2014," Sullivan said. The 2014 monies would be carried forward to fund the second phase of the work in 2015.

Safety improvements on C.R. 14 include shaving off the top of hills on the winding road to improve sight distances for drivers.

PILT monies had taken a backseat to the debate in Congress between Democrats and Republicans about how much money to appropriate for food stamps in the new farm bill.

The Associated Press reported Monday that plans in the House of Representatives to make major cuts to food stamps were moderated under a bipartisan agreement on the farm bill.

The Web page Politco reported this week that House Speaker John Boehner approved of House Ag Committee Chairman Rep. Frank Lucas' plans last week to promise Western lawmakers that PILT funding would be added to the farm bill in an effort to ensure greater buy-in for the larger piece of legislation.

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