Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Five Idaho counties propose a land trust to keep afloat

By Alannah Allbrett

Like every other business, counties need money to operate. County budgets must provide necessary services such as law enforcement, road maintenance, and waste disposal. Traditionally, lands in each county were subject to a property tax to provide for those needs. The State of Idaho, which does not collect a property tax, utilizes a system of “Endowment Lands” as they are called in Idaho. These lands are managed to produce revenue. Those revenues have played a consistent role in the funding of public schools in Idaho.

In the past, counties received operating money from the Secure Rural Schools Act (SRS), (originally the Craig-Wyden Bill). Idaho received 31 million dollars of SRS money – last year’s total statewide. Clearwater County’s share of those funds was roughly equal to one half of our Road and Bridge budget.

That act expired, however, and when it was reauthorized four years ago, it had a time limit on it. It was geared to ramp-down with decreasing payments to the counties – weaning them from dependence upon federal money. Clearwater County Commissioner, Stan Leach said the final check to the county is expected any day now.
Leach, said the original intent of the bill was for the counties to diversify their economies and get the forest service timber sales to support the tax base. But with federal controls on timber, the main source of revenue dried up in Clearwater County. “The timber side of it never happened” said Leach. “When the bill expired four years ago, we, of course, asked for it to be reauthorized.”

Leach said that having federal lands within the county is both a blessing and a curse. “People can enjoy the outdoors, but there is also no way to raise revenue to pay for services as federal ground is not subject to property tax.”

Currently, Clearwater County is preparing a Road and Bridge budget based upon half the money they had available last year. “We absolutely have to figure out some way to generate revenue for these services,” he said. “You can’t raise enough in property taxes to fund county functions on public land.”

There are almost 2.5 million surface acres and approximately 3 million mineral acres of endowment land in Idaho. As a pilot program, commissioners from five northern counties are asking Congress to set aside 200,000 forested acres as a trust to benefit rural counties. Fifty-three percent of Clearwater County land is owned by the federal government, 14 percent by the state, and another one percent is owned by the Nez Perce Tribe.

Representing Clearwater County, Stan Leach joined with John Cantamessa (Shoshone County), Dan Dinning (Boundary County), Skip Brandt (Idaho County), and Gordon Cruickshank (Valley County) in the five Idaho counties most affected by SRS payments drying up, in formulating what they call the Community Forest Trust Proposal. The proposal, an alternative to the federal transfer payments, is a partnership with the Idaho Department of Lands (IDL) to “better utilize some federal lands to meet the needs of local communities and county governments,” said Leach.

Leach said several years ago the state was looking into taking over ownership of some of the federal ground, but the public was not in favor of giving up federal lands to the states. “What we are proposing is they don’t have to give up the ground – it would still be under federal ownership, but it would be managed like the IDL ground to benefit the county’s Highway District, the County Road and Bridge, and the local school district.”

“The way we are proposing it, IDL would be the on-the-ground managers; that is what they are doing with the endowment grounds now. They have the people, the knowledge, and the tools to do this. The five of us have been working on this for several months,” said Leach.

Leach said, “We have received support from the Idaho Association of Counties, the National Association of Counties, and we have Senate Joint Memorial 103 currently before the Idaho Legislature which supports this proposal. SJM103 has already passed the senate. Last Wednesday, after receiving supporting testimony from commissioners Leach and Dinning, the House Natural Resources Committee unanimously voted to advance SJM103 to the house floor with a ‘do pass’ recommendation. We feel this may be the best way for us to help the federal government meet its obligations to Idaho’s counties, highway districts, and schools,” said Leach.

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