Beaver County Commissioner Mark Whitney does a good job representing rural Utah at NACo and UAC. I appreciate his testimony regarding Payment in Lieu Taxes (PILT) and Secure Rural Schools (SRS) to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
The problem we have is the dichotomy or hypocrisy of the debate on public lands. The pro-public lands people say, “It’s our land, keep it open and accessible!” while at the same time decrying we receive “western welfare” in the form of (PILT) and (SRS).
Emery County is 92% public lands: 80% are federal lands (2,274,808 acres), 12% are state (335,085 acres), with only 8% private land (Garfield County has 3% private, we should count ourselves lucky). We have to petition (i.e. beg) legislators every year to make sure PILT and SRS doesn’t disappear or is reduced.
In 2016 the county received $282,924 from the state, that’s $0.84/acre, from the feds we received $1,290,199 that’s $0.57/acre for a grand total of $1,573,123. This is what the county receives as payment from the state and the feds in lieu or in the place of taxes.
If we were to receive from the state and federal government the minimum amount that the county taxes non-productive greenbelt, which is $5/acre the county would be receiving $13,049,465, that is about the whole budget for the county.
$13,049,465 vs $1,573,123 is big difference.
Economic development is hampered in Emery County in part due to the lack of private land available because of the amount of public lands in Emery County. While I would like to get rid of PILT and SRS, and “in lieu” let the state manage it, I am realistic that it is difficult with the partisanship in congress. For the record, I am not saying get rid of all public lands but there should be a balance and not to the detriment of people and economic development.
This is not just a county issue, Utah was ranked 51 (includes D.C.) in student spending in 2015. Utah has 64.5% public lands. Part of our property tax money goes to our schools. If there were more private property (or if the state and feds paid their fair share) we would have more for education, instead of taxing us more. In the image to the right, there was a poll that asked, “Do you believe more tax money needs to be allocated to fund Utah’s public school system?” 67% of the people that took the poll said yes. We have many good teachers and they go above and beyond (and spend their own money) for our kids. It just would be nice if our taxes didn’t have to increase to make a reasonable thing happen for the education of our kids.
Now, I don’t tend to dwell in the past, I hope for the future but I work with what is right now. So what can we do right now and how are to create economic opportunity with so much public land?
In a previous Commissioner’s Report, I wrote about moving SITLA parcels in our county to strategic locations and around our municipalities. I believe that there is and will be economic value in doing this. I have met with the SITLA Board and they are in favor of this idea. There are a lot of moving parts that include grazers, mineral lease permittees, BLM, FS, SITLA, private land owners and the municipalities, but an Emery Count Land Use Bill could speed up the process. In talking with Ray Peterson, Emery County Public Lands Director, the recent PLI had 100,000 SITLA acres that are available to be moved around in our county. We will be working with SITLA and stakeholders to figure this out. The checkerboarded map doesn’t make sense for the state or the county.
Please send me your thoughts and, remember, be part of the solution.