1:55pm

Wed April 13, 2011
Budget

Federal County Payments Poised for Extension

It’s looking likely that a federal program that helps fund everything from roads and bridges to teacher salaries in scores of rural western counties will get extended. But even though the current federal budget bill would extend the Secure Rural Schools program, some Colorado schools and counties could still be faced with layoffs.

Many rural western Colorado counties from Jackson to Eagle get hundreds of thousands of dollars from the program. That’s because they have large amounts of federal public lands that counties can’t collect tax revenue from.  The payments have been seen as especially important in recent years as logging has declined. 

In Saguache County in southern Colorado for instance, Secure Rural Schools and another companion program account for one out of every five dollars spent by local officials.

At Mountain Valley School in the town of Saguache, Superintendent Corey Doss said Secure Rural Schools funding is helping offset millions of dollars in state budget cuts and prevent layoffs for now.

But he's not counting on it for the future.

"We’re preparing for it right now, as if it won’t exist after next year," Doss said.  "That’s the only thing that we can do, we can’t base our schedules on money that is up in the air."  

Even though Congress appears poised to extend the program after October first, western counties and schools like Mountain Valley will likely still face cuts and layoffs, according to Marc Kelley of the Partnership for Rural America.

Kelley said counties that distribute these SRS funds begin budgeting for next year on July first, not October first like the federal government.  So even if it's re-authorized, October will be too little too late.

"Until it’s actually re-authorized, from a fiduciary responsibility perspective, they have to assume it’s not going to be," Kelley said.

But some want the act that was originally passed in 2000 to go away all together.

Critics of Secure Rural Schools say the program was never intended to be permanent, but rather a bridge while counties find new revenue sources to replace the decline in timber receipts.

"I think it would be more worthwhile for counties to figure out other ways of making money," said Randal O'Toole, a senior fellow with the libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, who’s based in rural Oregon.

"We’re forking over hundreds of millions of dollars a year to counties and we have no receipts to cover that payment," O'Toole said.  "It ends up being taxpayers elsewhere subsidizing taxpayers in these few counties." 

But it’s hardly just a few counties; more like 720 counties in 39 states, and O’Toole says he’s frustrated that even some of the most fiscally conservative Republican lawmakers are backing the push to extend the program. 

Still, Marc Kelley of the Partnership for Rural America says not extending it would break a more than century-old contract the federal government has with rural, forested counties.  He says until the federal government begins actively managing forests in the West, which in his words would get isolated, rural communities back on their feet, the payments must to continue.

"It’s very difficult for the folks who like to come out to the national forest to comprehend what it would be like to visit these communities if they don’t exist anymore," Kelley said.  "Or to go out to our national parks and find out that there are no stores." 

The program is currently in what’s called a reserve fund in the budget; a symbolic statement that Congress views it as a priority for the coming year. 

Money to actually fund it though would have to come from cuts elsewhere in the budget; where exactly remains to be seen.