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Interior secretary addresses federal lands payments

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U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt talks Tuesday afternoon with the editorial staff of the Roswell Daily Record. The secretary has been on a tour of New Mexico and talked with the Daily Record staff about a variety of topics. (Juno Ogle Photo)

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Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program provides annual revenues for county

The head of the U.S. Department of Interior said the department is working to update and “improve” federal payments to local government entities that have federal lands within their borders.

Sec. David Bernhardt spoke Tuesday afternoon about the Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program, which provides about 20% of the revenues each year for Chaves County.

Bernhardt has been traveling to many different cities and states to talk about Interior Department issues. In Roswell, he visited with local elected officials about public lands and other issues.

He also met with Roswell Daily Record editorial staff to answer questions about the Great American Outdoors Act, wildfire prevention and programs to reduce and adjudicate crimes against indigenous women. His remarks on those topics will be covered in a future story.

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Annual PILT payments affect all county residents. They are made to local governments in lieu of property taxes for lands controlled by U.S Fish and Wildlife or the Bureau of Land Management, national parks, military installations or other federal facilities.

In Chaves County, federally controlled property makes up about 32% of the land. For fiscal year 2020-21, the county has budgeted $3 million for PILT money for its revenues, which will help pay for road improvements, public safety and other county projects. In 2019-20, it received more than $3.3 million.

“We are engaged in a process of evaluating if the formula for PILT needs to be updated,” Bernhardt said. “I think it might actually be underrepresented irrespective of what the formula optimal is. So a number of senators have asked us to do that, and that is what we are doing.”

Bernhardt said the department has not changed its PILT formula in a long time and that raises questions of whether the local governments are being fairly compensated given how those lands are used or the other impacts they cause on local populations.

“That is an area that I think it is fair to look at, to say, is it equitable? Different people, depending on their perspective, have different views of the burden it places on communities and the benefits you get from having federal land,” he said. “The whole concept of PILT was to address that and the question is, is it fairly addressable, irrespective of the number you propose?”

He said that PILT, as with some other Interior Department funding programs, is mandated by law to provide local governments with the appropriate levels of federal funding.

But the reality in the past has been different from the law. From 2015 to 2017, counties were underpaid, with the allocation provided by Congress less than what was required by the PILT formula. A federal class-action lawsuit was filed, with 30 counties in New Mexico included. Chaves County, which joined in 2018, had been shorted $123,934, according to lawyers representing that plaintiff.

The Interior Department argued that it was required to pay only the amount allotted by Congress, but a federal judge ruled against the federal government twice, stating that it had a legal requirement to follow the statute, regardless of what Congress allots.

An Oct. 2019 settlement provided $82,000 for Chaves County, as well as payments to other counties.

Will Cavin, chairman of the Chaves County Board of Commissioners, said a more equitable formula would be welcomed.

“I hope that comes to fruition,” he said. “That is one of the things we have discussed with Sec. Bernhardt.”

He said he and other commissioners also have made the point at various times that they would like a commitment by the Department of Interior that full funding will occur each year.

“Along with more funding, it would be nice to know that we will have that funding on an annual basis, so that we would not have to go to Washington each year and ask them to give it to us,” he said.

Bernhardt said the department can make funding requests, but that sometimes the presidential administration makes other decisions in consultation with the Office of Management and Budget.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-Santa Fe, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, said he supports establishing guaranteed legislative funding.

“It is past time the Senate vote on permanent PILT funding,” he said. “Without this guarantee, local governments are often left wondering whether they will receive payments they rely on to provide basic services. Local governments deserve predictable funding and budget certainty in order to properly plan for the future.”

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.