Brittney Lofthouse – Staff Writer
Macon County Schools finance director Angie Cook sounded off a list of budget amendments during Monday night’s board of education meeting and among the list of federal allocations just now rolling into the district, the federal government’s PILT (payment in lieu of taxes) funds were noticeably absent nearly seven months after the school year started.
“Have we heard anything about this year’s PILT funding,” asked Macon County Board of Education Chairman Jim Breedlove.
Cook replied that as of the meeting, the district has not received the annual allocation of PILT funding, but historically did receive a check in February and with a few days remaining in the month, was expecting to get the funds any day.
The constant back and forth and uncertainty regarding PILT and SRS (Secure Rural Schools) funding is something the Macon County School System and school districts across the country have struggled with for the last half decade or so. Dating back to when Congressman Health Shuler was in office, PILT funding, which is the federal allocation to counties containing federal lands, has constantly been in limbo. For districts across the country — specifically in rural areas— PILT funding provides a hefty sum of money for school districts, at least it used to.
PILT funding has not only been debated year after year and threatens to be discontinued altogether, but while some portion of the funds have been given to counties consistently, the amount the counties receive is rarely consistent and continues to shrivel essentially becoming nonexistent.
PILT payments help local governments carry out such vital services as firefighting and police protection, construction of public schools and roads, and search-and-rescue operations. The payments are made annually for tax-exempt federal lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (all agencies of the U.S. Department of the Interior), the U.S. Forest Service (part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture), and for federal water projects and some military installations.
On Monday, Congressman Mark Meadows, who has championed for PILT funding since taking office, submitted a bipartisan bill to authorize PILT funding on a continuing basis to alleviate the “what if” felt on the county level trying to balance a budget with a prediction of what they will receive from the federal budget rather than actual dollars.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., along with Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo introduced legislation to supplement counties that have expended local taxes on federal land for services like fire protection, police cooperation, or road building to circumnavigate federal property. The bipartisan PILT and SRS Certainty Act would reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools Program (SRS) for five years and extend and provide funding for PILT for five years at an annual level of $465 million.
“Counties across North Carolina’s 11th district rely on SRS and PILT funding, and I am proud to join my colleague, Rep. Jared Polis, in re-introducing this important piece of legislation. This is a commonsense bill that ensures the federal government fulfills its commitments to rural counties across the country,” said Meadows.
Typically, the federal government provides PILT and SRS payments on an annual basis to hundreds of counties across the country in order to supplement reductions to their local property tax bases, due to a large presence of federal land. But for the past few years, both PILT and SRS have been in jeopardy due to Congress’s failure to reauthorize them on a long-term basis. Mandatory funding for PILT expired in Fiscal Year 2013 and SRS program payments expired at the end of Fiscal Year 2015.
Nearly 1,900 counties across 49 states receive PILT funding to compensate for lost tax revenue due to the large amounts of federal lands in their counties, which are un-taxable according to federal law.
Last year, Macon County Schools only received $58,000 in PILT funding, a significant reduction from the $157,955 they received in 2016. The amount of PILT funding has steadily decreased since 2008-2009 when Macon County received a high of $239,524.05.
Rep. Meadows said that more so than just having a consistent and reliable allocation from the federal government, he wants to work to restore some of the funding that has experienced some atrophy over the years.
According to Meadows, the PILT funding is far from a partisan issue. The bi-partisan bill he worked to introduce expands party lines and has been something Rep. Meadows has fought for under a Democratic president and something he continues to work for under the current Republican administration. Before Rep. Meadows, Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler was also vocal on the importance of PILT funding for Western North Carolina. Rep. Meadows said initially rather than a partisan divide on the issue, he believes some of the stalling on the funding in the past has trickled down from an urban vs. rural leadership due to the fact that PILT funding primarily affects rural districts. Meadows continues to stand as the only member of the Western Caucus to sit on the committee fighting for PILT funding as the majority of the members of Congress who are impacted by the legislation hail from the east with federal lands in states such as Colorado. Rep. Meadows said with more than five counties in his district receiving PILT funding, with the primary beneficiaries being Swain, Macon and Graham, Rep. Meadows’ district encompasses more federal land than some of his eastern colleagues.
N.C. Representative Kevin Corbin noted that after serving on both the board of education and county commission, he knows firsthand how important the funds are for county budgets and to have those funds remain the same.