By Marcy Stamper
Okanogan County will get $3 million for roads, schools and fire prevention, money the federal government pays to compensate counties for a loss of income from logging on federal lands. Half of the money is for this year, and half is an overdue payment for last year.
After a two-year delay that allowed the program to expire, Congress reauthorized the payments, known as the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act (SRS) last week. The SRS allocation was attached to the so-called doc-fix legislation that adjusts Medicare reimbursements to doctors. All but a handful of lawmakers in both the House and Senate approved the bill. President Obama signed it into law Thursday (April 16).
Okanogan County has used the SRS money to help pay for schools and roads since the program was enacted in 2000 after logging on federal lands declined substantially. The last payments in 2013 brought the county $757,000 for schools and the same amount for roads, plus another $71,000 for wildfire protection and search and rescue, according to County Treasurer Leah Mc Cormack.
When the supplemental SRS program expired in 2014, the payments reverted to a 1908 law that gave states just one-fourth of actual timber revenue. Under that formula, Okanogan County would have received only $214,000, instead of the $1.5 million, according to the National Association of Counties (NACo).
In fact, the entire state of Washington was due just $2.14 million for fiscal year 2014, as opposed to almost $19 million the previous year, according to the chief of the U.S. Forest Service, who notified the state of the reduced payments.
Lobbying of Congress by advocates for counties that rely on this money has been an annual event and, even with the reauthorization, the funding is not guaranteed beyond fiscal year 2015.
“The current situation leads to uncertainty and frustration for local governments and funding complications each and every funding cycle,” the executive director of the Western Governors’ Association told Congress in March.
In fact, the original SRS law was drafted so that the amount decreases each year, with the idea that Congress would find another solution to replace timber revenues, according to Brian Namey, director of media relations for NACo. The allocation just approved by Congress is a 5-percent reduction from the 2013 amount, according to the Western Governors’ Association.
More than 720 counties in 41 states — encompassing 4,000 school districts — receive SRS funding.
The new SRS provisions require the federal government to make payments to the counties within 45 days after the law goes into effect.
A similar federal program known as Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT), which compensates counties for nontaxable federal lands but is not explicitly connected with timber revenues, was reauthorized last year. Okanogan County will receive $2.3 million in PILT money.
More money for fire prevention
SRS also funds part of the Firewise Communities program, through which the Okanogan Conservation District provides education and assessments to help landowners create defensible space.
With exceptionally high interest in these assessments after the Carlton Complex Fire, the Conservation District had already spent all its Firewise money last year, according to Kirsten Cook, education and outreach coordinator for the district. The SRS money supports Cook’s site visits to advise people about fire risks and prevention around their homes.