Taos County gets $1.7M in yearly federal public lands payout

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Taos County came out slightly ahead of expectations when it came to this year's allocation of federal money to make up for taxes lost to big swaths of public lands.

Taos County received $1,733,264 of payment in lieu of taxes (PILT) at the tail end of the fiscal year, June 26.

PILT money is distributed to local municipalities and counties to make up for the property taxes they cannot collect on federal public lands, such as those controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. Taos County receives PILT money for 254,837 acres of BLM holdings and 508,141 acres of Forest Service holdings.

According to Taos County Manager Leandro Cordova, the actual PILT payment was about $100,000 more than was expected.

"All in all, we're pleased we received a little extra," Cordova said. "It looks like [federal budgeting] is moving in the right direction for us."

Because county administrators are not sure when and how much PILT money will hit the coffers each year - due to political jockeying over the federal budget - Taos County's PILT payments are used for one-time construction projects rather than recurring expenses.

Cordova said this year's allocation will likely pay for the future paving of Witt Road in Taos, as well as roads around Questa and at least one in Amalia.

In other jurisdictions, PILT money pays for fire protection, emergency services and other critical expenses.

While the county does receive other federal funds for senior services, PILT is the largest check cut by the federal government every year.

The secretary of the Department of the Interior oversees PILT payments. The amount paid out to counties each year is determined by a formula based on population, the amount of federal land within a county and other factors.

PILT payments disproportionately impact rural, sparsely populated places like Taos. According to Headwaters Economics, a nonpartisan research firm based in Montana that has previously contracted with Taos County, metropolitan counties are supported by a more diversified tax base and are therefore less vulnerable to declines in the PILT allocations.

By way of comparison, the federal government funded PILT to neighboring Río Arriba County for $2,277,385 and Colfax County for only $166,163. Eddy County in Southeast New Mexico received the largest allocation this year, at more than $3.5 million, while densely populated Bernalillo County received only $209,245.

New Mexico, the third-highest recipient of PILT, received more than $38.5 million in total this year, according to a media release from U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich.

The PILT payments were a provision in the Department of the Interior's 2017 budget, a subset of the budget that funds the government through September, according to the senators.

Yet Headwaters Economics warned in June that the president's proposed budget could greatly affect these allocations. According to the group, the proposed budget would limit PILT to the most recent 10-year average and would not renew two other federal payout programs.

Assuming those provisions of the budget are made a reality through congressional approval, Taos County would see a 32 percent drop in federal payments, according to the research group.

"I am glad we were successful in securing funding for this year's payments, but we still need permanent funding for PILT to give counties in New Mexico more long-term predictability," said Heinrich. Udall echoed those concerns for fully funding PILT.

While Taos County came out ahead in PILT, the money that was expected to be available via the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, which provides another block of funding for counties and school districts, did not come through. That's a loss of about $200,000 for Taos County schools and another $250,000 for operational costs at the county's road department.

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