By Marcy Stamper
Okanogan County will be getting about $2.3 million — thus joining almost 1,900 other rural counties around the country in a collective sigh of relief — after Congress authorized payments to counties for their nontaxable federal lands.
The total $372 million allocation for Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) was included in the 2015 spending package approved last week by Congress. Along with $70 million that had previously been allocated, the new commitment fulfills the federal PILT obligation, according to the National Association of Counties (NACo).
PILT money is not earmarked for any particular use, but goes straight into the county’s general fund, according to Leah Mc Cormack, the Okanogan County treasurer.
Okanogan County was the second-largest recipient of federal PILT monies in Washington last year, getting $2.29 million as compensation for more than one and a half million acres of federal lands, almost all national forest. Okanogan County has the highest federal acreage in the state.
Even though Chelan County has fewer acres of federal lands, that county received $300,000 more in PILT payments last year, since the formula for payments takes population and other factors into account, according to NACo. Although some Washington counties receive relatively little money from the PILT program — Wahkiakum County got none last year — the state received $19.3 million overall.
While counties with significant amounts of nontaxable land are now assured of next year’s PILT payments, a similar program, called Secure Rural Schools (SRS), still hangs in the balance, according to Brian Namey, director of media relations for NACo.
The SRS program compensates counties for loss of income connected with a reduction of logging on federal lands. SRS monies are restricted to certain uses. Last year Okanogan County received $1.58 million from the SRS program — $757,000 for schools and the same amount for roads, plus $71,000 for wildfire protection and search and rescue, according to Mc Cormack. “It would be a huge impact if we don’t get that money,” she said.
Washington state counties received $21.5 million in total SRS payments last year, according to Sen. Patty Murray.
NACo is optimistic that the SRS money will be authorized when the new Congress convenes next year, although “we know we have work to do,” said Namey. The SRS money went to 729 counties around the country in 2014, paying out a total of $270 million.
There is a separate state PILT program that compensates counties with nontaxable land managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). Since adopting a new formula based on the land’s valuation as open space, Okanogan County has billed the state for almost half a million dollars in recent years for 80,000 acres of WDFW land.
After paying the full bill for a few years, the Legislature cut the appropriation for the 2011-13 biennium, slashing Okanogan County’s compensation by two-thirds. That issue is still being debated by county and state lawmakers.