Environment & Science

Cash for rural Western counties could dry up under Trump budget

A recreational off-road driver rides in the Colorado Desert at the Imperial Sand Dunes, also known as the Algodones Dunes. Imperial County fire fighters and police officers patrol the area, and are partially compensated through the federal Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, which President Trump's budget would cut back.
A recreational off-road driver rides in the Colorado Desert at the Imperial Sand Dunes, also known as the Algodones Dunes. Imperial County fire fighters and police officers patrol the area, and are partially compensated through the federal Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, which President Trump's budget would cut back.
David McNew/Getty Images

It's called PILT -- a strange-sounding acronym for a program that President Trump has proposed cutting. But it's a program many rural counties say is essential to fund fire fighting, search and rescue and other basic services. 

Officially called Payment in Lieu of Taxes, PILT compensates counties for the basic services they provide on non-taxable federal lands. The Department of Interior announced this week its largest PILT allocation ever, and California, the largest recipient of PILT money, netted $48 million out of a nationwide total of $464 million

The Department of Interior touted that payment as continuing "to underscore the Trump Administration’s commitment to rural communities." But President Trump's 2018 budget only provides $397 million for the program -- a nearly 17 percent decrease.

"It seems contradictory to express you have the commitment to rural communities when you’re threatening to cut funding," said Rebecca Terrazas-Baxter, director of intergovernmental relations for Imperial County, which gets $3.4 million, or nearly five percent of its budget, from PILT payments. "This is an extremely important funding source. If there were to be any cuts to it, it would significantly impact us."

Like many counties in the rural West, Imperial County is nearly 50 percent federal land (California is 45 percent). But the county is still responsible for responding to police, fire and medical calls there, running search and rescue missions for people who get lost, and taking out trash. Unlike private landowners, the federal government pays no taxes to support the county services provided on its lands. That's where PILT comes in. 

"The sheriff spends a lot of time on public land," Terrazas-Baxter said, especially in the popular off-roading area Glamis Sand Dunes. Over a holiday weekend, the area can draw up to 40,000 people  -- in a county of less than 200,000. She says the county needs PILT money to help keep federal lands safe.

In Southern California, Imperial County is most dependent on PILT. Riverside and San Bernardino counties also receive about $3.3 million each from the program, but they are less dependent on the funding because they are larger, more urban and have a more diversified tax base. Each county's budget is more than $5.5 billion.

The proposed cuts to PILT are even more significant in light of a proposal to eliminate an additional source of federal funding to rural areas: the Secure Rural Schools program. The program, which funds local education, road building, and other basic services in areas hit-hard by the decline in logging on public lands, expired in 2015 and President Trump's proposed budget does not re-authorize it.

It's these sparsely-populated, rural counties with large amounts of public land that stand to lose the most if PILT is cut, said Mark Haggerty, an economist with Headwaters Economics, a non-partisan economic research firm in Bozeman, Montana. He mapped the impact of the proposed federal payment cuts on every county. He has been working with counties in rural Idaho that are staring down a loss of 40 percent of their budgets.

In California, that's areas like Trinity, Siskiyou and Plumas counties in the northern part of the state.