Pitkin County sees bailout benefit | AspenTimes.com
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Pitkin County sees bailout benefit

John Colson
Aspen, CO Colorado

PITKIN COUNTY ” The taxpayers of Pitkin County are about to directly benefit from the Wall Street bailout.

Tom Oken of the county treasurer’s office confirmed Wednesday that the $700 billion Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, passed last Friday, contains provisions that will immediately help Pitkin County’s bottom line.

According to a memo from the National Association of Counties (NACo), Pitkin County’s revenues from two federal programs ” Payment In Lieu of Taxes, or PILT, and the Secure Rural Schools program ” will rise by some $293,000.

Where the county had expected to get $886,000 or so in payments from the two programs, it will now receive more than $1.17 million.

Grants from programs such as these, along with user fees and other revenues, typically account for more than a third of the county’s general fund budget.

According to the county’s published annual financial report for 2008, this year grants and fees are expected to bring in $11.5 million of the overall $24.5 million general fund revenues.

The sudden influx of cash is the result of what NACo’s e-mail described as “a result of aggressive lobbying by NACo and county officials.”

After the federal bailout proposal failed to win approval from the House of Representatives in its first iteration, congressional lobbyists and legislators went to work on a second version that included a package of enticements aimed at winning the support of nervous representatives.

One of the enticements added to the bill was full funding of the PILT, which has been under-funded for years, according to Oken. The program provides payment from the U.S. Forest Service that makes up for tax revenues that the county would receive if all the USFS lands within the county boundaries were privately owned. Federal lands are tax exempt.

But, Oken said, the payments in recent years have been only about two-thirds of the amount the county is eligible for under a complex financial formula.

For instance, he said, the county, while formally due about $800,000 per year, received $536,000 in PILT funds in 2007, and had budgeted for an average of $525,000 for 2009 and beyond. But now, he said, the county will get the full amount, meaning an additional $225,000 or so over the expected payment.

Also among the add-ons to the second version was the reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program through 2011. The program, which was scheduled to expire this year, calls for county governments and school districts to get a share of fees collected from users of public lands, such as ski areas and timber companies.

Following the federal law, the county turns five percent of its SRS funds over to the local school districts, and the amount the county keeps is dedicated to roads and bridges.

In 2007, Oken said, Pitkin County received $452,000, and had budgeted to receive $361,000 this year.

Now that the program has been extended and bolstered as part of the bailout program, Oken said, the county expects to receive an additional $68,000 this year, and to budget for roughly $420,000 or more for the next several years.

Oken conceded that the county is benefiting from what some critics call “pork,” but he noted, “It’s what usually happens with some critical bill or another.”

And since the federal government has chosen to bail out the financial markets in this time of fiscal crisis, he said, “that’s how the feds are bailing us out, too.”

jcolson@aspentimes.com


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