However, last week, Park County Treasurer Barb Poley learned the county is receiving more than $767,000 this budget year — nearly $585,000 more than the county had expected.
“It was great news. We don’t expect it to continue, but it will certainly help us when we decide how to budget for the next year,” said Commission Chairman Loren Grosskopf.
The county’s conservative budget expectations were based on early estimates from the Wyoming County Commissioners Association.
The windfall was the result of Congressional action last July, but under the typical payment schedule, it wasn’t announced by the U.S. Forest Service until last month.
“These payments are part of the Department of Agriculture’s long-standing commitment to rural communities, schools and American youth,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a Jan. 15 statement. “Our century-long support of America’s public schools and roads is one of many ways in which the Forest Service, as a good neighbor and partner, contributes to rural communities becoming self-sustaining and prosperous.”
The Secure Rural Schools funding compensates counties for timber production and other money-generating forest uses that have dwindled with increased protections on national forests.
Though the name “Secure Rural Schools” would imply the funding goes to schools, the bulk of the money — $705,862 — will go toward road work around the county. Another $61,189 being paid to the county under the program this year has more limited uses, including on roads critical to fire access. Area schools get a total of $37,150.
In brief, the money is good news for a Fiscal Year 2013 budget that’s already more than a quarter million in the red — an amount taken from county reserves — because of $711,500 worth of payments to West Park Hospital and Powell Valley Healthcare. The payments settled 10 years of disputed claims for the care of indigent, mentally ill patients hospitalized against their will. Further, a capital murder trial is set to begin in May and could potentially cost Park County hundreds of thousands of dollars. Commissioners did not include the trial in the budget because of its uncertain nature.
Grosskopf predicted that whatever extra cash the federal Secure Rural Payments provides the county in this budget year will be put into reserves.
In the long view, however, the bigger-than-expected payment isn’t all good news.
The way Congress decided to pay for the program — and a connected one known as Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) — was by raiding $700 million worth of Abandoned Mine Land (AML) clean-up funds that had been promised to the state of Wyoming.
Soon after the vote, the Wyoming County Commissioners Association warned its members that Congress’ move might mean payments in the short term, but will ultimately mean a net loss for Wyoming’s counties.
Congress took Wyoming’s AML money to give Secure Rural Schools and Payment in Lieu of Taxes to counties across the entire United States and — in addition to that — the money covers only one year of the programs.
“The dilemma becomes where the funds will be taken from in the future to fund the program now that the AML money has been used for the next 10 years to fund one year of PILT & SRS,” summarized commissioners association staff in a July note. It’s possible Congress — despite the wishes of Wyoming’s Congressional delegation — may simply choose not to reauthorize the programs.
“They could be next,” warned the commissioners association. “No projects that are federally funded are safe.”
It’s concerning for Park County given that Payment in Lieu of Taxes and Secure Rural Schools funding could pay for as much as 10 percent of its budget this year.
“Our spending will have to be adjusted for that, there is no doubt about it,” said Grosskopf, adding, “Everybody has great concern about that.”
Park County’s Secure Rural Schools payments are among $4.31 million being paid to Wyoming.
Payment in Lieu of Taxes are scheduled to be released to counties in June. Park County commissioners expect to receive more than $1.47 million from that program.