County, schools haggle over forest reserves funds
January 17, 2010
In light of budget woes of late, public schools in Grand County were served with a rare slice of financial good news last Tuesday regarding annual money passed down from the federal government.
The East Grand School District received a check for $318,079 from Grand County on Tuesday after negotiations with commissioners, and West Grand received $110,252.
The checks came at a time when state school-budget rescissions are hitting districts harder than expected.
East Grand Superintendent Nancy Karas learned recently that an unforeseen $40,000 in school finance funds – in addition to an already planned-for $181,000 – must be returned to help backfill the state’s budget.
That district faces $1.2 million in cuts for the 2010-11 school year, followed by a projected $1 million in additional cuts the following year.
The West Grand School District is facing $300,000 in cuts for the 2010-11 budget as well as declining enrollment. From preliminary discussions, cuts may translate into some teacher lay-offs, according to West Grand Schools Superintendent Kevin Chalfant.
“Payments in Lieu of Taxes” (or PILT) are federal payments to local governments to help offset losses in property taxes due to nontaxable federal lands within their boundaries.
For Grand County’s 800,491 acres of public land, in 2009 the county received $824,369, which the state mandates should be distributed to public schools as well as county road and bridge departments.
In the past, Grand County has paid its school districts more than the minimum 5 percent required, upping its payment to the two districts by as much as a 40 percent share.
But due to new legislation on the forest reserve funds that dictates a quarter-share of the money serve public schools and a quarter-share serve road and bridge departments, with the remaining 50 percent negotiated between the county and school officials, West and East Grand School District officials sat across the table from commissioners to negotiate a possible 50-50 split of the funds: Half to road and bridge and the other half split among the two districts.
This year’s PILT payment amounted to $856,664, which was more than expected. In its budget, for its share Grand County had budgeted $400,000 in PILT to road and bridge.
During negotiations, county officials outlined ways in which the county supports its schools, such as providing discounted fuel and in-kind contributions of gravel and road preparation for parking area projects.
In its subdivision regulations, the county also requires developers to make payments in lieu of land, further supporting school districts.
Grand County Manager Lurline Underbrink Curran pointed out the county “is also budgeting a 20 percent decrease in the next three years.” As much as $6 million is budgeted for road and bridge operations, and another $3 million is put toward capital projects for the department, she said.
Superintendent Chalfant advocated an equal split of the funds between districts and the county: “Not because we have a greater need, but because we have an equal need.”
Since the federal PILT award turned out to be more than the county had expected, “You have some wiggle room,” pointed out East Grand School Board President Tom Sifers.
Ultimately, commissioners voted to split the PILT funds 50-50 upon a motion by Commissioner Gary Bumgarner, who made it clear to the school officials that the ratio is renegotiated each year.
For the half granted to the school district, 25.74 percent goes to West Grand and 74.26 percent goes to East Grand, based on average daily attendance percentages of the previous year.
– Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.