Park County joins suit over reduced fed payments

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Expecting to collect tens of thousands of dollars, Park County commissioners decided last week to join a class action lawsuit against the federal government.

The county is effectively guaranteed to make money, as a judge in Washington, D.C., has already ruled that the government must pay up.

“We won’t incur any costs; there’s really no downside to us,” said Commission Chairman Loren Grosskopf. The upside, meanwhile, is a payout that will likely fall somewhere between $46,500 and $71,000.

At issue in the suit is how much money the U.S. Department of the Interior provided to counties between fiscal years 2015 and 2017 through Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT). The program is the federal government’s way of compensating counties that contain large amounts of public lands, since federal property does not have to pay the property taxes that help fund counties and other local governments.

According to the funding formulas created by Congress — which take into account each county’s population and acres of public lands — counties across the country were owed roughly $1.375 billion of payments across the three fiscal years in question. However, the PILT funding from Congress came up about $16 million short, so the Department of Interior simply reduced the counties’ payments by that amount; on the whole, it was a reduction of around 1.2 percent.

Last year, Kane County, Utah, sued over the cut in payments, arguing that the federal government was legally obligated to pay the full, 100 percent of PILT.

In rulings issued in December and March, Judge Elaine Kaplan of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims agreed and sided with the counties.

The law that governs PILT used to say that the money was available “only as provided in appropriation laws,” but that language was removed by Congress in 2008. Kaplan said that means the government is required to pay counties the full amount they’re owed under the formula. The judge also allowed the dispute to be classified as a class action, opening the door for other counties to easily claim the money they were shorted. Counties must “opt in” to the class, which is what Park County commissioners did with a vote at their Tuesday, Aug. 7 meeting.

The county is owed around $71,000, Grosskopf said.

“The only thing [left to determine] is how many dollars of legal fees there are to subtract off the top of the settlement,” he said.

It’s likely that the law firm representing the counties — Smith Currie — will get a significant cut of the cash as its attorney’s fees for working the case. Smith Currie says it plans to ask for a little more than 33 percent (about one-third) of the total money
recovered by the participating counties. That would leave roughly $46,000 for Park County.

It will ultimately be up to Judge Kaplan to decide what fees are reasonable for Smith Currie.

“Whatever the court awards, it is virtually certain to be a fraction of the cost any county or governmental unit would have incurred to recover its underpayment in an individual lawsuit,” Smith Currie says on a webpage devoted to the suit. “Lower litigation costs for each class member is a principal advantage of a class action lawsuit.”

At least 13 of Wyoming’s counties have already voted to join the action.

Park County received roughly $5.5 million of PILT funding over the three fiscal years in question. In addition, the county received nearly $2.52 million in PILT funding earlier this year and expects to receive that same amount next year.

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