So, Gila County finally feels some of the effects of sequestration — and what gets hit?
Gila County has asked Superintendent of Schools Linda O’Dell to cut by 10 percent the federal forest fee money she has already promised school districts as a result of the automatic federal spending cuts forced by sequestration.
The decision could cost the Payson Unified School District as much as $38,000.
Every spring, O’Dell recommends how the supervisors should divide up the forest fees money the federal government gives to rural districts whose property taxes are stunted by the huge amount of untaxed federal land in the district. O’Dell’s formula allocates a chunk of money to her office then hands out the rest based on enrollment and how much forest land surrounds a district.
O’Dell based the money she promised local districts this year on the 2012 federal budget, which sequestration in theory does not affect. However, when the automatic sequester cuts took effect a month ago after Congress and the White House failed to agree, the county decided to play it safe.
“I was asked to hold on to part of the distribution in case the county has to give the federal government money back due to sequestration,” said O’Dell.
Congress established the forest fees at the turn of the century when the federal government took millions of acres of land to manage.
The government offered to pay the states with fees gathered from grazing, mining and logging permits. In the east where most land remains in private hands, local government can count on much larger property tax collections for roads, schools and other services.
However, a decline in logging and grazing on federal lands in the west in the past several decades has squeezed the revenues that once provided the money for the forest fees payment. Congressmen from eastern states whose school districts didn’t get forest fee payments gradually turned against the program.
“It’s east versus west,” O’Dell said.
She has no idea if Gila County or any other western state will ever see forest fees again. She hopes that the challenge works out this year and she can eventually distribute the 10 percent she will set aside for a worst-case scenario. “The first distribution will be 10 percent less, but I hope to have a second distribution before the end of the year.”
Maybe the Payson Unified School District board had some premonition of the troubles ahead. The board voted to give staff a $750 bonus instead of a $1,000 bonus at the end of last year based on the forest fees O’Dell will distribute this year.