Federal rule change could boost county’s road and bridge budget | AspenTimes.com

Federal rule change could boost county’s road and bridge budget

Jeremy Heiman

A change in a federal revenue-sharing plan promises to yield just a bit more federal money for Pitkin County.

Because Pitkin and many other western counties contain a great deal of federal land, and the federal government doesn’t pay property taxes, these counties would face a serious shortage of money if not for federal revenue-sharing programs. Pitkin County is about 75 percent federal land.

One such funding source, U.S. Forest Service Shared Revenue, annually provides about one-fifth of Pitkin County’s road and bridge budget. A small portion, 5 percent of that shared revenue, goes to area public school districts.

Funding for USFS Shared Revenue comes from fees for special-use permits. Commercial users of federal lands, including logging companies, guides and outfitters, ski areas and companies building roads or power lines through the forest, must pay for such permits.

The Forest Service has historically given 25 percent of the proceeds from those permits to the counties in which they are collected. But as less timber is removed from federal lands, and as ski area usage declines, revenues have declined as well, leaving some western counties a bit short.

“We’ve seen some serious reductions in that revenue under the old format in the last four years,” said Lynn Dunlop, Pitkin County’s budget director.

Pitkin County’s slice of the shared revenue reached a high of just under $500,000 in 1996 and has declined every year since then, Dunlop said. Revenues in 1999 were $306,000.

The amount of money is less than one-half of 1 percent of the county’s $46 million annual budget, but the losses are significant for the road maintenance program.

“If we didn’t have it, the general fund would have to make up the difference,” Dunlop said.

Counties will be given the option of keeping the old system or adopting a new program. Under the new program, counties with declining revenue could receive an amount equal to the average of its three highest-revenue years between 1986 and 1999.

“It gives them the option to go back to years when revenues were higher,” said Jim Upchurch, Aspen District ranger for the Forest Service.

But, to complicate matters, 15 to 20 percent of the money would go to “forest enhancement” projects at the recommendation of a citizen committee. Trail improvements, road signs, watershed enhancement or recreation projects could qualify for this money, Upchurch said.

Dunlop’s preliminary calculations indicate that the county would get about $350,000 for the first year the new system was adopted. That’s not a tremendous jump in revenue, and it’s unclear whether the county could go back to the old system if special-use permit revenues begin to increase.

“My guess is we need to look at these revenues and find out why they’ve declined,” Dunlop said. If there’s a chance permit revenues will increase, she said, the county would want to stay with the old system.

Upchurch said counties will have to choose a plan by midyear.

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