County Vs. The Feds: All Bark, Not Much Bite

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Tommie Martin

Can the county government order around federal agencies?

Probably not, but it’s worth trying, county officials mostly agreed as supervisors and members of the draft Land Use Resource Policy Plan (LURPP) discussed the document recently. Supervisor Tommie Martin disagreed, questioning what she called “unnecessarily harsh” language that seeks to require cooperation from federal agencies when managing land in Gila County.

The plan, with 15 sections ranging from water rights and land exchanges to economy and cultural preservation, seeks to update an old plan from the late ’90s.

Drafters tried to change the new plan’s tone. It requires the federal government to cooperate with Gila County instead of promising that Gila County will cooperate with the federal government.

“That made a big change in the tone,” said Community Development Director Bob Gould.

Yet, some say the plan lacks “teeth” — no way to enforce it.

Martin says the county has enjoyed greater collaboration with the Forest Service in the past few years than ever before.

“Why poke (them) with a stick?” Martin wondered. “We have a better relationship with them than we’ve ever had.” Planners can stick the word “require” in every sentence, she said, but the word has no teeth. The county can’t require the federal government to do anything.

LURPP Chairman Jay Spehar defended the wording. “We would not be so naive to think this puts us in the driver’s seat,” he said.

“The important part about a LURPP,” added Spehar, is that “the county has stood up and said, ‘These are our policy statements.’”

Supervisors could approve the plan Sept. 21 at their 10 a.m. board meeting.

The federal government owns 55 percent of land in Gila County, and another 38 percent falls inside Indian reservations. With so much of Gila County federally owned, county officials are constantly talking with representatives from federal agencies. However, local leaders often grow frustrated with their inability to make decisions concerning federal land in the county. Plus, federal agencies sometimes make decisions without consulting local officials, county officials say.

The plan seeks to define Gila County’s policies on land use issues so that county officials can negotiate with officials from other agencies.

Some of the plan’s strongest statements come in areas like economy and tax base. “Gila County’s tax base is disproportionately penalized by the large amount of federal acreage situated in the county,” the plan reads.

It also states that the federal government has jilted county residents, claiming, “economic discrimination and deprivation by the federal government.”

The plan also demands fairer compensation under the Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program, a federal plan that compensates counties heavy in national forest for lost property tax revenue.

For the past decade, private property in Gila County has generated about $134 per acre in property taxes, while PILT payments averaged just $1.10 per acre.

The plan states that this discrepancy has “placed an unfair tax burden on private property and eroded the quality of life and services available to residents of Gila County.”

Supervisor Shirley Dawson liked that the plan requires the federal government to coordinate, because it gave the county leverage. “Whether anyone has a voice in this process, I don’t know,” she said.

Martin disagreed. “We can require all we want to and it doesn’t mean flip,” she said. Martin recommended that they reinsert the term “coordinating agency status,” because the term is a legal recognition provided by the Forest Service and can provide those agencies access. The phrase might mean little to a layperson, she added, but it can make a difference in the bureaucratic world. The draft plan is on Gila County’s Web site at www.gilacountyaz.gov.

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