By Michael Howell
About 76% of Ravalli County’s land base is comprised of national forest lands. Since 1908, the Forest Service has shared with states 25 percent of gross receipts from national forests to benefit public schools and public roads in the counties in which the forests are situated. The receipts are derived from timber sales, grazing, minerals, recreation, and other land use fees.
In the late 1980s, due largely to declines in timber sale receipts, payments began to drop significantly and fluctuate widely. In 1994, Congress responded by providing “safety net payments” to counties in northern California, western Oregon and western Washington.
In 2000, Congress passed the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act that provided enhanced, stabilized payments to more states through 2006. The act was extended for one year and then reauthorized in 2008 for four more years. This year’s reauthorization provides benefits for an additional year.
The Secure Rural Schools Act state payment calculation uses multiple factors, including acres of federal land within an eligible county, the county’s share of the average of the three highest 25-percent and safety net payments to the state during fiscal year 1968 through fiscal year 1999, and an income adjustment based on the per capita personal income for each county.
Through this complicated formula Ravalli County has regularly received large payments calculated to compensate it for the “losses” suffered by having so much land removed from its tax base. Over the four years since the Act was reauthorized in 2008, the payments to Ravalli County under the act have been significant, although declining. In 2008 the payments equaled about $1.88 million. That declined to $1.63 million in 2009, $1.56 million in 2010, and $1.35 million in 2011. Congress extended the Act in August for another year and 2012 payments are projected at $1.28 million. The actual amount will vary depending on a number of factors written into the law, including how many counties ultimately decide to share in the state’s payment.
While privately owned undeveloped forested land in the county pays about $.20 per acre in taxes, the forest receipts through SRS funding yield about $1.20 per acre of national forest land. According to commissioner Greg Chilcott, if the County Road Fund was reduced to simply the funding that comes in through property taxes and state gas tax, “We would not even have enough to fix all our potholes.”
A small percentage of the SRS funds is used for administrative purposes and about 15% goes to fund the Ravalli County Natural Resource Advisory Committee, a Title II program. The remaining 85% is split between the county road fund and the school levies with the road department getting two thirds and the schools one third.
This year’s funding, for instance, put about $201,000 into the RAC, with $1.15 million being split between roads and schools. The County Road Fund received $766,779 while the remaining $383,389 went to the schools.
The breakdown of the school funding included $144,164 to Elementary Equalization, $96,109 to High School Equalization, $18,653 to Countywide Transportation, $85,624 to Elementary Retirement and $38,836 to High School Retirement.