Tipton fights to fund counties

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

A federal program that has pumped millions of dollars into the coffers of Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties for the past 37 years is threatened by belt-tightening by Congress.

The Payment In Lieu of Taxes, or PILT, program was started in 1976 to offset rural counties that have large amounts of non-taxable federal land within their boundaries. The federal government doesn’t pay county property taxes on national forests or lands managed by other agencies. About 1,900 counties in the U.S. have some amount of federal lands.

The law forcing mandatory funding of PILT expired this year, so the payments counties received in June will be the last if Congress doesn’t reauthorize the program, according to U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, who is helping a bipartisan effort to get the program renewed. Tipton represents Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes Aspen and Pitkin County.

The loss of PILT funds would hit the counties of the Roaring Fork Valley hard. Pitkin County received $1.26 million this year. Eagle County received $2.04 million. Garfield County received $2.83 million.

Counties receive payments based on a formula that includes percentage of federal lands, population and prior-year payments from revenue sharing of mineral-leasing royalties. (The federal government shares the bounty from oil and gas extraction with local jurisdictions.)

Tipton was one of 48 members of the House who signed a letter urging conferees working on the 2014 budget to prioritize funding for the PILT program.

Pitkin County Treasurer Tom Oken said he believes the program will be funded but at a smaller amount than the past three years.

“We reduced our estimate by 30 percent,” he said. That means a reduction of about $380,000.

“It’s such an important program. I can’t imagine they will fully sap it,” Oken said. The funds that Pitkin County receives go into the general fund rather than getting earmarked for anything specific.

Oken said about 81 percent of Pitkin County is land managed by federal agencies. Eagle County has 849,970 acres of federal land, or 78 percent of the total. Garfield County has 1.19 million acres of federal land, or 63 percent of the total.

The letter signed by Tipton and other member of Congress acknowledged the fiscal challenges facing the federal government. However, it also said many rural counties depend on the PILT payments and promises that were made about the program.

“Counties have already begun budgeting for fiscal year 2014, and without action from Congress, many will be forced to cut important services and implement budget contingency plans,” the letter said.

The members of Congress who signed it vowed to help identify funds that can be cut to fund the program so that it doesn’t result in an increase in overall spending by the federal government.