Millions at stake for county in congressional budget debate
By BRENT SHRUM Western News Reporter
Millions of dollars for local roads and schools are at stake as Congress considers reauthorization of a law providing subsidies to counties that were formerly dependent on logging and other income-generating activities on national forests.
Reacting to a loss of income from timber sales, Congress passed the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000 to provide a stable source of funding for counties that had previously received a 25-percent share of forest receipts for roads and schools. Annual payments over the act's six-year lifespan were set at an average of the three highest years of the previous decade. For Lincoln County, that amounted to more than $5.8 million per year, with 15 percent taken off the top for special forest-related projects mandated by the new law and the remainder divided under a Montana statute allocating two-thirds to roads and one-third to schools.
The law expires with the end of the federal fiscal year in September. A budget proposal from President Bush includes reauthorization of the act for five years at half the current rate, with funding to come from the sale of more than 300,000 acres of federal lands across the United States — including around 5,000 acres on the Kootenai National Forest. Montana's congressional delegation, along with other Western lawmakers, has expressed support for reauthorization but not for selling federal lands to fund it.
Reauthorization was absent entirely from an earlier draft of the president's budget, said Lincoln County Commissioner John Konzen.
"We were just glad he had it there, so we could at least talk about it," he said.
Congress has to decide on whether or not to reauthorize the act before it can even begin the debate on a funding source, said Commissioner Marianne Roose.
"That's when the next battle will begin," she said.
"It was funded the first time by an appropriation, and that's the way we would like it to go," said Commissioner Rita Windom.
The people attending a recent hearing on the issue sponsored by U.S. Sen. Max Baucus in Missoula showed strong support for reauthorization but against the sale of federal lands, Roose said.
"People were really point blank about it," she said.
Of the more than $1.6 million allocated under the law to schools in Lincoln County each year, about $500,000 remains at the local level to fund transportation and retirement budgets and the rest goes to a statewide equalization fund. The loss of funding for transportation and retirement
would force districts to increase local tax levies.
The county's $3.3 million share provides the great majority of funding for all three road districts. Lincoln County is the only county in Montana not to use any local property tax dollars for its road budget. Surpluses from past years grew into a $23 million fund that has been invested, with interest — currently about $850,000 per year — put into the general fund.
Elimination or reduction of income under the federal act would have devastating impacts on both the road budget and the general fund, the commissioners said. Without new income, the $23 million road fund would be exhausted in seven years. With budgets capped under state law, the county would be required to make massive cuts or ask voters to approve equally massive tax increases.
An immediate impact would be seen by people living along Forest Service roads currently maintained by the county, Konzen said. Winter maintenance of those roads, including the South Fork Yaak, West Fisher, Callahan Creek, Vinal Lake, Rabbit O'Brien and Warland Creek, would likely be curtailed or dropped entirely.
"It would probably be the most frightening thing for people who have invested and built homes on these Forest Service roads," Konzen said. "And we have no obligation to maintain them."
Reductions in the size of county road crews and various cuts across the board in other county departments would also be likely.
"It concerns us immensely that we would have to make those kinds of cuts," Konzen said.