Payments to public lands counties are crucial during the coronavirus economic crisis

Payments to public lands counties are crucial during the coronavirus economic crisis
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The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt many unforeseen consequences on our nation. But the public health and economic crisis has brought one of our nation’s treasures to the forefront of our awareness — our public lands. Under public health restrictions, one place Americans can still flock to are our national forests and parks. This summer, eager to find solace and connect with nature in these trying times, we visited them in droves. 

Normally, this would be good news for the counties that serve as the gateway to our federal public lands for nearly 300 million visitors annually, providing jobs to residents and revenue to local governments for necessary services. However, the pandemic and resulting recession have placed a huge financial burden on public lands counties, which is why Congress must protect funding for two key programs now and into the future: Payments In Lieu of Taxes (PILT) and Secure Rural Schools (SRS).

Mono County, in California’s Eastern Sierra, where I serve as a county supervisor, contains some of our nation’s most stunning public lands. Much of our county is in the Inyo National Forest, home to Mono Lake and Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States. We are a proud gateway to Yosemite National Park. Tourism and recreation on public lands are the lifeblood of our local economy, generating $600 million in visitor spending in 2018.

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Mono County, like all counties, is legally required to provide essential services — such as infrastructure maintenance, search and rescue, law enforcement and solid waste disposal — to residents and visitors alike. As visitation to public lands increased, our county stepped up to partner with federal lands agencies to protect our natural resources from negative impacts of recreation and tourism, such as trash and illegal fires. Our sheriff’s department assists the Forest Service with patrols, while our search and rescue team responds to hundreds of calls every year from stranded and injured recreationists. The impact of COVID-19 means more demand for services, while decreasing revenues make providing them increasingly difficult until we emerge from the pandemic and recession. 

Most county budgets are primarily funded through property tax collection, but federal lands are nontaxable. In 1976, Congress established the PILT program, which compensates counties for public lands within our boundaries. Sixty-two percent of counties in 49 states have PILT eligible lands. In many communities, PILT can comprise most of a county’s operating budget. Mono County is approximately 90 percent federally owned, severely restricting our property tax base.

This June, counties received our last authorized PILT payments, totaling $515 million nationwide. Mono County received $1.3 million. Unfortunately, this federal obligation to local governments is subject to the ups and downs of the annual congressional appropriations cycle. Congress must fund PILT for FY 2021 and guarantee long-term, mandatory funding. The Permanently Authorizing PILT Act would provide full funding of PILT moving forward. 

Should Congress cut PILT, counties will face significant budgetary constraints as we deal with the pressures of an economic hit and the resulting drop in tax revenue, especially in communities like mine that rely so heavily on tourism and recreation. This would force local governments to reduce essential services that help keep our communities safe and healthy when we need them most. 

Congress created the SRS program in 2000 to compensate national forest counties for the revenue shortfall from decreased federal timber harvest receipts. California counties received $24.1 million in SRS payments this year, using the funds to fix roads and maintain teachers for our school children. While Congress reauthorized SRS for two years beginning in FY 2019, the final SRS payments to over 700 counties and school districts will be processed next spring. Should this program lapse, public lands counties will be compelled to lay off teachers and road crews at the worst possible time.

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In the long-term, Congress should pass the Forest Management for Rural Stability Act, which would establish an endowment fund to make SRS payments in perpetuity. Congress also must make changes to the last round of SRS by ending the annual five percent reduction in payment amounts and granting counties the flexibility to use funds for expanding broadband access in schools — a crucial issue when teleworking, distance learning and even virtual religious worship are the new normal.

Congress will hopefully soon resume negotiations on a possible coronavirus relief package that includes direct, flexible funding to state and all local governments. In this time of economic uncertainty and public health crisis, it is imperative that PILT and SRS are included as a component. Rural public lands counties should not be left out in the cold, especially during these challenging times. Congress must provide long-term solutions for these programs. 

Stacy Corless is a Mono County, Calif. supervisor and she chairs the National Association of Counties’ (NACo) Public Lands Management Subcommittee.