County reaps $3.1 million from Interior

Mesa County officials won’t have to juggle accounts this year to cover for a federal agency withholding the county’s share of mineral lease money.

The county has received more than $3.1 million this year from the U.S. Department of the Interior as payment in lieu of taxes, or PILT.

In previous years, such payments were reduced by about half because the Interior Department counted mineral lease money against the county’s share of the payments in lieu of taxes.

The PILT payment means the county’s Federal Mineral Lease board will decide how best to spend $1.6 million in lease payments that it set aside pending a decision by Interior whether to count that money against the in-lieu payments.

“We felt pretty confident” that the offset wouldn’t take place this year, Marcia Arnhold, county finance director, said.

The decision is a vindication of the course taken by the previous board of commissioners, who opted to establish a federal mineral lease district, which then spent $1.6 million in mineral lease money to establish the Epicenter for Unconventional Energy at Colorado Mesa University.

Craig Meis, then a county commissioner and a member of the Federal Mineral Lease board, insisted on spending the money rather than holding onto it should the Interior Department demand the money back.

The department then was considering whether the lease board was sufficiently independent of the county.

“It was just the right thing to do,” Meis said Thursday. “It was a calculated risk.”

The risk paid off, said David Ludlam, who sits on the Federal Mineral Lease District board, “and then some.”

The board, which now counts among its members Commissioner Steve Acquafresca, who advocated that the board hold onto the cash, now will decide how to handle $1.6 million it received in June, Ludlam said.

Colorado Mesa University matched the original $1.6 million grant with $1.6 million of its own to establish an endowment, from which it has made the first round of grants.

The payment of more than $3.1 million was $79,000 short of what the county had budgeted, Arnhold said.

Payments in lieu of taxes are made by the federal government to counties with large amounts of federal land that would otherwise provide no revenue to the local government because federal agencies pay no local taxes.

The federal mineral lease money is provided to the board through the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, which passes through money collected by the Interior Department from mineral lease payments.

Those payments are split 51 percent to 49 percent between the federal and state government respectively.


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