County Reaps Windfall

Total from bailout bill hits $4 million

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Gila County supervisors will likely inject an unanticipated $1.15 million in federal funds they received this month, straight into the county’s reserves.

Officials had expected to spend $1 million of the county’s $4 million rainy day fund by the year’s end, Supervisor Tommie Martin said Thursday. However, the federal funds will allow the county to essentially break even.

The money comes from a federal program designed for counties with vast national forests called Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT). In October’s bailout bill, Congress fully funded the program for the first time since 1976.

Rural areas won big in the bailout, with full funding for both PILT and a similar program called the Secure Rural Schools Act. Both programs are designed to help federally forested counties compensate for lost tax revenue.

By January, the county will have received a cumulative $3.9 million in unanticipated funds, $2.79 million of it from the rural schools program that is granted with restrictions.

Twenty percent of it will fund forest projects that need approval from an advisory committee before beginning, 95 percent of the remainder will fund schools and 5 percent will go to roads. The money used for roads is deducted dollar for dollar from the next year’s PILT money, so Martin said counties restrict how much they spend on roads.

As for who receives pieces of the $2.79 million, Martin said the board won’t decide until after the money arrives in January, but Payson schools could receive a portion. It’s not yet clear if the county needs to immediately spend the money or if it can carry some over.

Last year, the county received roughly $312,000, which the county superintendent of schools was given to disperse. The Gila County Regional School District, which the county superintendent of schools runs, received $164,000. Payson schools received $28,000. Globe schools received $11,800.

Earlier this year, Gila County received roughly 60 percent of the fully authorized PILT funding — $1.9 million — as part of normal appropriations. Last year’s payment was roughly the same amount. With the additional $1.15 million awarded this month, Gila County will receive full PILT funding for the first time in 32 years.

“This is a success story, but it comes after 32 years of lobbying,” Martin said.

“It was one of those legacy things that was handed down from one set of supervisors for the next.”

Though the bailout bill authorized full funding through 2012, subsequent payments have not yet been determined, according to the Western Counties Alliance.

The rural schools’ money should continue to flow until fiscal year 2011, for a total of $9.6 million over four years. The money decreases slightly each year.

However, Martin said governments must keep up pressure to ensure that the authorized money actually arrives and that full funding doesn’t stop after the bailout gifts run out.

“Call me a cynic. I’ll believe it when I see it,” Martin said. “With a stroke of a pen, the money goes away. But at least for this year, we’ve got enough to help weather the storm.”

Counties across the nation will receive roughly $4.7 billion through fiscal year 2012 from both programs combined, according to the Western Counties Alliance.

The rural schools program, passed in 2000, was all but killed two years ago.

Congress eventually passed a one-year extension, which critics called a band-aid solution to a serious problem. Advocates say continued efforts will be necessary to urge continued funding after 2012.

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