Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Federal government wants Idaho school funds back

The federal government has sent a letter to the governor’s office demanding a return of 5.1 percent of the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) funds that were distributed to counties, highway districts, schools, and Resource Advisory Committees (RAC’s) across Idaho. 

The letter allows the Governor’s office two options: a) the money can be collected back from all the receiving entities at 5.1 percent, or b) 5.1 percent of the total can be withheld from the Resource Advisory Committees.

In an effort to protect the taxpayers of Clearwater County, the commissioners sent a letter to the governor requesting that he choose the second option. If the monies were withheld from the tax supported entities it could result in higher property taxes.
The RAC’s don’t receive any local property tax dollars. The RAC’s were established as part of the original legislation that started payments to local entities to compensate them for revenue losses caused by cutbacks in logging on federal forest lands. RAC’s are made up of representatives from a wide variety of groups interested in the management activities on the forest. The RAC’s get a percentage of the secure rural schools’ money each year to spend on special projects on the National Forest.  
This is the last payment under the Secure Rural Schools legislation, and the odds of getting it reauthorized are looking dismal. The tax supported entities who just received their last check are facing significant revenue shortfalls in the next fiscal year. Clearwater County’s portion is over $550,000, all of which goes into the road department. The local highway district and schools receive lesser amounts.  
When asked to comment on the return of SRS dollars, Commissioner Stan Leach said, “This is indicative of the state of affairs in Washington, D.C. right now. The federal government is going back on its promise that it made to support roads and schools when the forests were put into reserve in 1908. So, not only can we not count on that support into the future, we can’t even cash the checks that have already been sent. This really points out the need for more active forest management so that we can pay our own way and not have to count on the whims of Washington, D.C.”  
There are several efforts underway to increase forest management. Commissioner Don Ebert is working as part of the Clearwater Basin Collaborative to accomplish this. Commissioner Leach is working with the other county commissioners around the state to establish a Community Forest Trust, where a portion of forest lands would be managed on a sustainable basis with generated revenues helping to offset some of the shortfalls created by expiration of the SRS legislation.  
There is also an effort to authorize another SRS type bill, but even that would only be a temporary fix.

“A permanent solution has to be found,” said the commissioners, “because even if the SRS funds stop coming, the needs that those funds pay for will not.”

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