Missoula County welcomes $2.3M payment for untaxable federal land

A $2.3 million federal payment heading to Missoula County to compensate for untaxed federal lands will go far in shoring up the county’s budget and boosting several county departments, officials said Thursday.

With help from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Sen. Jon Tester, counties across the state will receive a combined $40 million in Payment of Lieu of Taxes, including $2.3 million for Missoula County.

“Montana counties rely on these funds to provide public services and balance their budget,” Tester said. “This investment will help rebuild schools, plow roads, hire law enforcement officers, and perform other duties critical to rural America.”

Andrew Czorny, the chief financial officer for Missoula County, said this year’s payment is $527,000 more than last year. The funding supports a number of departments, from the County Attorney’s Office to facilities management.

“It offsets our inability to put a tax on federally owned lands that have a forest on them,” said Czorny. “We had an additional 6,808 acres added to our total acreage this year, and that was part of the big increase. The other would have been growth in the local population against the consumer price index. They take all that into account.”

PILT payments are awarded to counties that include federal lands, which local governments cannot tax. But local governments do provide services to those areas, including infrastructure and law enforcement.

Czorny said the payments represent a vital portion of the county’s general fund budget.

“It would be a giant blow if those payments went away,” Czorny said. “The loss would be significant.”

Still, the program isn’t popular among staunch conservatives, including Matt Rosendale, a Republican candidate for Senate and the current Montana State Auditor. In an interview this week with North West Liberty News, Rosendale billed PILT as state welfare.

“Basically, it’s a welfare check for the state so that we don’t use these lands,” Rosendale told the station. “I truly believe if we had control and management of those lands, we wouldn’t be quite so dependent on the federal government for funding.”

Zinke, who announced the payments on Wednesday through the Department of Interior’s website, said the federal government has distributed $8.5 billion in PILT since 1977. While the funding has been less than authorized in some years, this year’s round of payments is fully funded.

“PILT investments often serve as critical support for local communities as they juggle planning and paying for basic services, such as public safety, firefighting, social services and transportation,” Zinke said. “These investments are one of the ways the federal government is fulfilling its role of being a good land manager and good neighbor to local communities.”

Czorny said Missoula County doesn’t view the payments as federal welfare.

“It’s something I think we deserve,” he said. “Many of the tiny towns surrounded by forest, they get a big payment because they have lower population and the burden is harder on them. There would be some severely hurt little towns across Montana without this program.”