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WA Counties Get $43 Million Shot in Arm

October 27, 2008

Seattle, WA – Lawmakers in Washington, D.C., have surprised local leaders and school districts by reinstating a federal program compensating counties for the property tax dollars they don't collect from federal forest lands. The Secure Rural Schools Act had expired, and local governments were preparing budget cuts, but Congress has authorized county payments for four more years.

Some counties in Washington are comprised mostly of federal land, and they rely on that money for schools, fire protection, conservation and road projects. John Chelminiak, North Cascades Initiative director for the Wilderness Society, says it's a badly needed budget rescue. Washington State's share of the money for the current budget year is $43 million, divided between most of its 27 counties.

"In a western Washington county like Skamania, it amounts to $10 million; and in Lewis County, it's almost $5 million. In eastern Washington, Okanogan and Chelan counties both will be bringing in over $2 million."

The money is safe for now, Chelminiak says, and it will give counties time to plan for the future.

"This was a four-year extension; a couple of bills were only looking at extending this for one year. We've been given the opportunity to take a real close policy-level look at this, and to have a good decision made at the national level."

Opponents of what is sometimes referred to as the "County Payments" program argue it is unfair when some counties receive federal money and others do not. Program proponents agree the issue is one of fairness, saying it's only fair that the federal government should help those counties in which it is a major landowner. States will get the money to pass along to the counties no later than mid-January.

Funding figures by county are available at www.fs.fed.us/srs.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA