BY MELANIE BUCK –
Polk County County Judge Brandon Ellison joined the National Association of Counties (NACo) on September 7th through 9th to urge members of Congress to support a full investment in the Payments in Lieu of Taxes, or PILT, program in Fiscal Year 2017 and permanent funding for the future. The PILT program offsets forgone property tax revenue due to the presence of non-taxable federal land within counties’ jurisdictions.
Ellison was sent by the Association of Arkansas Counties, who paid for his trip to Washinton, D.C., to represent the state of Arkansas in the fight to keep PILT coming. Ellison met with leaders on Capitol Hill to push for immediate and long-term funding for the program, which supports vital county services including road and bridge maintenance, public safety and environmental compliance.
“On Wednesday, I was part of 15 county officials, 3 county legislative advocates, and approximately a dozen NACo legislative specialists. From conversation, I learned that in the past, the PILT Fly-In attendees were primarily from western states. NACo staff seemed to be pleased that this year Arkansas, Florida, and North Carolina would be represented,” said Ellison.
“The county delivers services to support our residents and visitors to federal public lands within our boundaries,” said Ellison. “The PILT program supports services like law enforcement, emergency medical services, search-and-rescue efforts, road maintenance and fire protection.”
Sixty-two percent of the nation’s counties have federal public lands, including Polk County, where federal lands make up 37 percent of the county. For 2016, the county received PILT payments of approximately $350,000, which represents 30 percent of the county’s general fund budget.
Ellison explained that Arkansas is represented in Washington by a PILT supporter. “On Thursday, we broke into teams of three and headed to the “Hill”. The team that I was assigned to had 11 scheduled meetings that ping-ponged back and forth from the Senate and House buildings. NACo legislative specialist, Chris Marklund, headed my team and we were joined by John Harrington, an Assembly Member from Ketchikan Gateway Borough, Alaska. Our meetings went well. Many were with senior staff, but in some cases we were able to meet with the Senator or House Member directly. At noon, we attended a Capitol Hill Briefing on PILT at the Capitol Visitors Center, where my own Congressman, Bruce Westerman, spoke in favor of PILT.”
In 2016, Congress appropriated $452 million for the PILT program, allotted to approximately 1,900 counties and other local governments across 49 states. Despite not being able to collect property taxes on federal lands, county governments must still provide many important services for residents and visitors. The funding for PILT is set to expire at the end of September 2016.
Ellison sounded the call for action during a congressional briefing with a bipartisan group of lawmakers including Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.); Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah); Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah); Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) and Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.).
“I believe we were very successful in our mission to convey the importance of PILT and SRS funding without interruption and with certainty of funding. A recurring theme did emerge. That was the admission that mandatory funding will not be probable because of the large budgetary amount. PILT will always be funded by discretionary dollars unless some huge offsets are found. Our asks were: Provide full funding for PILT in FY 2017, reauthorize Secure Rural Schools Program for 2016, and show support for both programs by signing letters of support for both programs,” said Ellison.
Although some showed support for PILT, there were others that did not. “We had a breakfast meeting with Craig Crutchfield, Chief, Interior Branch, White House office of Management and Budget. Mr. Crutchfield was very candid and insinuated that maybe the counties did not “earn” PILT funds. With restraint, we responded well with the laundry list of items that the counties provide on federal lands. I believe he was properly educated and somewhat agreed at the end. We then met with Doug Crandall, Director Legislative affairs, USFS. Mr. Crandall was very positive about both programs. Then came Kerri Mills, Acting SRS National Program Manager, USFS. Ms. Mills is a true believer of the SRS program, and I believe will do all she can to further the programs full funding and reauthorization.”
The future of PILT is still up in the air, but Ellison is confident the meetings helped. “Overall, there were 60 meetings with House and Senate members. The “fly-in” was productive and worth doing. The members we met with were told of the broad support from around the country of these programs, and from their responses, I believe we reinforced that. My take away from the “fly-in” on PILT for FY 2017 is that it will be delayed by a CR until Dec.’16 and then after the election in November, it will be picked up for more discussion. SRS is another matter. This program is not reauthorized and we don’t have extra time to deal with it. At least now during county budget time, we can know our PILT payment will come in June. Next year, without any further movement, we will be in trouble again. Without congressional action, there could be significant budget shortfalls in counties across the country,” said Ellison. “Polk County provides continued services for federal public lands, and Congress should provide ongoing, predictable funding to support them. We expect all other landowners in our county to pay property taxes and I believe that the federal government is obligated to do the same”.
For more information on the PILT program, visit www.naco.org/PILT.