$$ needed for emergencies | ParkRecord.com

$$ needed for emergencies

Patrick Parkinson, Of the Record staff

To off-set the loss of tax revenue due to the tax-exempt status of public lands Congress has authorized Summit County to receive $668,623 from the federal government to help fund essential services.

The so-called Payment-In-Lieu-of-Taxes money, or PILT, is the county’s share of $20 million Congress allocated the state of Utah last week. Nationwide, payments for more than $232 million were approved.

"PILT is extremely important to all 29 of Utah’s counties. Communities use this funding to provide residents and visitors with critical services like emergency response," U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, said in a press release. "It is only fair that the federal government pay its share."

The tax base to pay for roads, public safety and schools is impacted in Summit County because so much land is tied up by the federal government, U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said in a prepared statement.

"We need PILT funds to help pay the bills. Of course we’d like to see more, but it’s good that Utah is not losing any funding this year, while many other states are."

PILT payments for 37 states decreased in 2007, according to Hatch.

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PILT payments, however, are never enough, Summit County Auditor Blake Frazier lamented, adding that "it’s never fully funded."

"There is a funding formula and I think we’re getting it up to about 60 to 70 percent of what that formula is, but that’s as high as it’s ever been," Frazier said. "It’s nice to get it, but it is supposed to be more than what they fund."

The PILT program was first authorized by Congress in 1976 and is administered by the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management. Payments are intended to help counties provide services like law enforcement, firefighting and search-and-rescue operations.

"[The land] is federal property and it is exempt, so, as far as values go, we don’t establish them," Frazier said.

County deputies and ambulances must often respond to the Wasatch-Cache National Forest east of Kamas where nearly 1.5 million people visit each year.

"That becomes a small city up there. This last weekend there was a tremendous number of people on the forest and we have to respond to calls up there," Summit County Sheriff Dave Edmunds said adding that in the Uinta Mountains in Summit County "they have one federal peace officer for that whole forest."

"Come on, one guy is supposed to cover that, that’s insane to me," the sheriff added.

Still, manning search-and-rescue operations on federal land in the Uintas may cost his department the most, Edmunds said.

"Ninety percent of all of the time we spend on search and rescue is on the forest," Edmunds said. "If we were paying people to do search and rescue that would be a pittance. It would cost the taxpayers of Summit County millions to have the search-and-rescue organization that we have."

The majority of visitors use the forest in the summer months, he added.

"I’m glad we get the PILT funding, I think it’s a nice gesture. But $600,000 is not nearly enough," Edmunds said. "The national forest is a major expense for Summit County taxpayers, there is just no getting around that."

Meanwhile, visitors also impact roads in Summit County, Frazier said.

"Anytime you look at close to three-quarters of a million dollars, it’s very important to get it but we provide a lot of services in that area too," he said.

Of the 29 counties in Utah, Tooele received the most from PILT in 2007: $1.9 million.

As the owner of almost 33 million acres of land, the federal government is the largest property owner in Utah.

"A decade ago, the PILT program was funded at only one-third its authorized level, today it’s at two-thirds," Hatch stated. "We have worked hard to get it to where it is today, and we’ll keep fighting until we get PILT fully funded."

The Department of the Interior collects about $4 billion each year from commercial activities on federal lands, such as oil and gas leasing, livestock grazing and timber harvesting, which is shared with states and counties.