High Desert Hoofbeats
The Zion Curtain: Funding for funny words...
by Sena Taylor Hauer
Feb 13, 2014 | 443 views | 0 0 comments | 21 21 recommendations | email to a friend | print
It looks like Grand County’s budget has been saved by the federal farm bill, at least until September when we’ll start hearing officials talk about that funny-sounding acronym that helps to pay for public services in the absence of standard taxes.

Payment-in-lieu-of taxes is quite a mouthful. That’s why it’s called PILT for short. It is federal funding to counties such as ours that have huge tracts of federally managed land that can’t generate revenue by means of private development.

What does the farm bill have to do with it? Very little and quite a lot. There is nothing that PILT money does in subsidizing farmers or funding food stamps. But the measure is an omnibus spending bill – another strange name – wherein Congress agrees to allocate money for a lot of different odds and ends and gives it one title, and in this case it’s the Agricultural Act of 2014, or the farm bill. In Grand County, PILT moneys help pay for nearly 12 percent of the county’s general fund.

It seems a little unfair that we have to worry at all about Washington guaranteeing customary PILT payments. Through federal governmental decree more than 75 percent of our county and about 70 percent of our state is prohibited from taking care of itself by means of good ole’ American capitalism. The percentages of public land are actually much higher when state lands are figured into the equation. And we’re surrounded by states that are in the same boat.

I’m actually quite proud to live in a place whose greatest value is its lands that haven’t been much altered by man. I like that our geologic qualities are important enough to be designated for the mutual enjoyment and ownership of all Americans to share with the world. Where mining is concerned, I’m reasonably comfortable that the extreme left and right arguments will result in middle-ground protections on multiple-use lands.

But I’ve long been led to believe that the feds honored their responsibility to help counties cope with the economic disadvantages of having limited opportunities to bolster their economies through private enterprise. Apparently there is no guarantee.

A glance at the U.S. Department of Interior’s website might lead one to feel a false sense of security that the federal government is sincere about supporting counties such as ours. PILT funding helps to “offset losses in property taxes due to nontaxable federal lands within their boundaries,” says the website. A public law created in 1976 and amended in 1982 “recognizes that the inability of local governments to collect property taxes on federally owned land can create a financial impact.”

Yes we know that. The website goes on to state that “PILT payments help local governments carry out such vital services as firefighting and police protection, construction of public schools and roads, and search-and-rescue operations. The payments are made annually for tax-exempt federal lands administered by the BLM, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (all agencies of the Interior Department), the U.S. Forest Service (part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture), and for federal water projects and some military installations.” That’s straight from a federal government website.

And here’s what seems to be genuine support from the mouth of the government: “PILT payments are one of the ways that the federal government can fulfill its role of being a good neighbor to local communities.”

It seems like members of Congress need to rethink the spirit of PILT funding and their role in being a good neighbor. Recent legislative action approved current funding only through the federal fiscal year. What is especially galling is that our own Utah Sen. Mike Lee voted against the bill, in a move to show his disdain for welfare.

I don’t like omnibus bills any more than Lee, but I kind of wonder if he’s ever been south of Provo. One thing’s for sure: He knows we in southern Utah aren’t much of a voting block. Makes me wonder if he considers us his neighbor.

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