When the feds released an overdue payment of $571,585 June 29, Modoc County Assistant Treasurer Linda Wilson found out in her routine afternoon check with the county’s bank.

And she promptly told her boss.

“We’re very happy,” said Modoc County Treasurer Cheryl Knoch.  “We can breathe easier, way easier. We don’t even have to sweat it out right now for payroll July 15. Until you get that money in the bank, you can’t breathe easier.”

Because of complications in accounting and late reporting of related inter-governmental amounts, the U.S. Department of the Interior had passed the word along about delays in Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) to some 1,850 municipalities
— mostly counties.

The Modoc County treasurer’s office researched the last several years – the payment usually comes around June 10, Knoch said.

Interior had communicated that the complications could postpone payments until July 15 … or even later.

On June 22, a bipartisan collection of 35 congressional reps – including Sen. Barbara Boxer and California Reps. Jim Costa, Wally Herger, Tom McClintock and Devin Nunes – sent a stern letter to Ken Salazar, secretary of the interior. (You can download a PDF copy of that letter here)

“County governments, already facing a dismal economic situation, cannot wait an extra month for these funds, or simply suspend their operations for a month,” the letter stated. “While we understand that the PILT formula is complicated, it is critical for rural governments that the Department of Interior expedites the release of these funds …”

There were plenty of California counties waiting anxiously for that transfer. Sen. Boxer said on June 29, “I am so pleased the Department of the Interior heeded our request to release preliminary payments by tomorrow, which will allow counties to pay for schools and other critical functions.”

Rep. Nunes took note of the bipartisan PILT effort in a year marked by extreme partisanship.

“In California, the federal government owns 44 percent of the property,” said the Tulare Republican. “Government land ownership means no tax base, and thanks to misguided environmental policy often means little to no productive land use. PILT represents a longstanding federal commitment to local government.”

The PILT funding hiccough struck disproportionately in counties with a lot of federal land, particularly in the Sierra Nevada and desert regions.

Inyo County, for instance, has only 2 percent of its area in private ownership, said county Auditor Leslie Chapman.

“Of course, I was thrilled about it,” said Chapman June 29 about the June 29 wire transfer notification of monies from the Department of the Interior. “We already had in place a contingency plan. My biggest concern was making the July payroll.”
Inyo County’s PILT for Fiscal Year 2010 was $1,594,732 – up from $1,556,892 in Fiscal Year 2009 – for 5.5 million acres of federal land in the county.

There are no PILT payments listed in Santa Cruz and Sutter counties. The Fiscal Year 2010 checks range from $2,040 in Alameda County to $3,105,827 in Riverside County, which has 2.4 million acres of federal land.

“Any news that we’re not going to lose money is good news for us,” said Riverside County Public Information Officer Ray Smith. “We’re dealing with an economy that has declined to the extent that our budget deficit prior to budget hearings is about $130 million in the general fund. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the state budget, but we anticipate we’ll lose money there.”

In announcing the fund transfer June 29, Secretary Salazar said, “We deeply appreciate the support these communities provide federal lands and disbursing this money before the counties’ fiscal year begins helps them budget for essential services, such as firefighting and emergency response, and allows for additional improvements to school, road and water systems.”

Nationally, the PILT payments totaled $358.1 million.

The 2010 calculations were delayed, according to a department news release, “by late reporting by some entities and the complexity of evaluating prior year payment amounts authorized by the Mineral Leasing Act and the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act.”

The PILT reimburses counties for taxes not paid on land in national forests and parks, the Bureau of Land Management, managed by the Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation water projects. The idea is that the counties receive no tax revenue yet still provide services such as public safety, housing, social services, transportation and environmental protection for these areas.

Lance Howland can be reached at lancehowland@aol.com