Federal payment cuts could slam Wyoming counties

2013-12-16T08:00:00Z Federal payment cuts could slam Wyoming countiesBy PATRICK SIMONAITIS Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
December 16, 2013 8:00 am  • 

When county leaders in Wyoming look at the bipartisan federal budget proposal, there’s something they don’t see: millions of dollars owed them by the federal government.

The Department of the Interior’s Payment in Lieu of Taxes Program, which provides money to counties where federal land takes away from potential property taxes, is not funded through the budget proposal.

The program has provided Wyoming more than $75 million over the last three years, most of which goes toward local government and funds services like public safety, housing and roads.

Roughly 50 percent of the land in Natrona County is owned by the federal government and PILT money accounts for roughly 6 percent of the county’s revenue, according to County Chairman Bill McDowell.

McDowell said that the county is bracing for the potential loss of PILT money for the upcoming year and has slashed its expectation of cash from the program by more than half.

“We have shared our concerns with the (county’s) employees and are fortunate that expenditures this past year have come in ten percent under projections and revenues were five percent over,” he said.

McDowell said the county would be able to weather the loss of PILT money if the federal government does not extend the program, but was optimistic that the program would be continued.

“Last year they got it passed on the last day,” McDowell said.

On Friday, Sen. John Barrasso’s office issued a statement saying the Wyoming Republican would urge Washington to focus on funding the PILT program.

“In public land states like Wyoming, where large amounts of the land are owned by the federal government, Washington has an obligation to help local governments offset the loss of property tax revenue,” Barrasso’s press secretary Laura Mengelkamp said in an email. “Sen. Barrasso will continue to call on Washington to act as a responsible landowner and prioritize PILT funding in the upcoming appropriations process.”

Sen. Mike Enzi’s office also called for the continuation of the program Friday.

“Sen. Enzi will continue working to ensure that Wyoming’s rural communities receive the money they deserve during the appropriations process,” said Daniel Head, Enzi’s press secretary.

Both senators have said they’re leaning toward voting against the budget deal as it stands right now. Cynthia Lummis, Wyoming’s sole representative in the House, voted against the deal.

Although PILT will not be directly funded through the budget proposal that passed in the house Thursday, language in the budget agreement suggests bipartisan support to extend the program in fiscal year 2014, according to Ryan Yates, the associate legislative director for Public Lands at the National Association of Counties.

Yates said that the PILT program is referenced within the deficit neutral reserve fund language in the agreement, meaning that the proposal recommends that the program be funded. How and when that may happen might not become clear until well into 2014. Last year, the program was attached to a transportation bill and passed into law in mid-July.

While the elimination or reduction of PILT funds would be “devastating” to counties in western states according to Yates, the timing and uncertainty of whether the program will be passed is equally troubling to counties building their upcoming budgets under the assumption they won’t get full PILT funding.

“Counties are already in their budget cycle,” Yates said. “And as the program is not yet approved, many are working under the assumption that these dollars just won’t come.”

In Big Horn County, PILT funding provided more than $1 million in the 2011 fiscal year. In the 2014 revenue projection provided by the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, Big Horn will prepare their budget under the assumption that only about $360,000 will be provided through PILT.

“We’re trying to be as frugal as we can, not knowing what the future will bring,” Becky Lindsey, the county’s treasurer said. “In the last year every department took a six-and-a-half percent cut.”

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