Baker County commissioners are discussing creating a road service district to ensure the county doesn’t have to forego some federal dollars it would otherwise receive for the road department.
Roadmaster Noodle Perkins and county counsel Kim Mosier talked about the proposal with commissioners during their Wednesday, Sept. 21 meeting.
The issue involves two federal programs that send money to counties — Secure Rural Schools (SRS) and Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILT).
The PILT program is the older of the two, dating to 1976. The concept is simple — because the federal government doesn’t pay property taxes on the public land it manages, Congress makes annual payments to counties to offset that, hence the “in lieu of.”
PILT is a significant source of money for Baker County, where almost half the 2 million acres are publicly owned.
The county budgeted about $1.2 million in PILT payments for the most recent fiscal year, which ended June 30, 2022.
Payments for the previous two years were $1.18 million and $1.65 million, according to county budget records.
Congress created SRS in 2000, with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., being one of the program’s architects.
It was designed to replace some of the money that counties previously received as a share of revenue from logging on public lands. Those payments shrunk dramatically starting in the early 1990s as the amount of logging plummeted.
SRS, as its name suggests, includes money for schools as well as for the county.
Baker County received $899,000 from the program earlier this year, of which 75% goes to counties and 25% to schools.
One issue with PILT and SRS — and the reason the Oregon Legislature recently passed a law allowing counties to create road service districts — is that at times in the past counties, including Baker, have had their PILT payments reduced based on the amount they received through SRS.
By creating a Road Service District, Baker County could deposit its annual SRS payment into the district’s budget, where the money would be used solely for the road department.
By placing it in the district budget, the county would also receive its full PILT payment.
The county would be required to continue to use SRS money for roads, Mosier said.
To set up the Road Service District, the county would need to have an approved resolution from the city council of each incorporated city in the county — Baker City, Greehorn, Haines, Halfway, Huntington, Richland, Sumpter and Unity.
Commissioners will be attending city council meetings to bring the road district proposal to city councilors for discussion.
“Once you have a resolution from each of the cities, we can set for discussion the formation of the district,” Mosier said.
Perkins suggested language that says if there are unforeseen administrative costs to the SRS funds, that money would come from PILT funds rather than reducing the SRS allotment.
Commissioner Mark Bennett said the objective is to collect the full SRS and full PILT, allowing the county general fund to access the entire PILT allotment.
“The first year, the PILT would be set aside, a savings account, for that one year,” Bennett said.
During the Sept. 21 meeting, commissioners agreed to donate $2,500 to the planned Oregon Vietnam War Memorial.
District Attorney Greg Baxter gave commissioners an update on his department, saying it is fully staffed.
“The last few times we’ve had openings, we’ve had a lot of applicants and we hope to keep that up,” Baxter said.
That’s in contrast to the situation in some counties, which have struggled to fill deputy district attorney positions.
Baxter said his office will have two positions opening in February or March of 2023, when Maggie Sackos and Shirleen Kaup, the office’s child support specialist, will be retiring.
Baxter said he is looking into scheduling local training for child abuse reporting.
“The other thing is we do want to make sure we are using grant moneys for that,” Baxter said. “I don’t want to be using county funds at all possible for those child abuse trainings.”