Officials: County could lose jobs without tax-replacement money

Sen. Michael Bennet greets Mesa County Commissioner John Justman at a meeting with officials from Mesa, San Miguel, Gunnison, Pitkin, La Plata, Ouray and Moffat counties, about the payment in lieu of taxes funding to local governments and other federal issues that have bearing on the counties.

The loss of a federal money stream could cost Mesa County as many as 64 of its more than 900 employees, officials said as U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., met local officials in Grand Junction.

Mesa County last year received $3.1 million from the payment-in-lieu of taxes program, which was zeroed out in the just-passed federal budget. Nearly three-quarters of the county is federal land.

The program pays federal money to counties that contain untaxable federal land. Counties in all states but Rhode Island receive money under the program.

The loss of payment in lieu of taxes represents an “attempt to balance the budget on the backs” of western counties, Mesa County Commissioner Steve Acquafresca said.

Bennet, a member of a conference committee working to iron out differences between the House and Senate versions of a farm bill, said he hoped to have payments in lieu of taxes reinstated in that measure.

Bennet met with county officials in the old Mesa County Courthouse in hopes of collecting information that he could use to demonstrate the importance of the program.

Payments in lieu of taxes, Bennet said, were axed from the budget in “midnight” budget dealings by people from the East and West coasts, Bennet said.

Putting the program into the farm bill might give the program a reliable home, Bennet said, noting that it had previously been funded by under economic recovery programs.

The estimate that the loss of money could equate to 64 jobs was the result of taking the average salary of employees and applying it to the loss of $3.1 million, Mesa County Commissioner John Justman said.

The effect of the loss of federal money to counties would magnify other federal reductions, Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards said.

Pitkin County now is performing work that the U.S. Forest Service no longer does, Richards said.

Loss of in-lieu payments would threaten search-and-rescue services, which are most frequently needed on federal lands, La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westerndorff said.

Congress hasn’t passed a farm bill since 2008, Justman said, noting it’s not yet a given that one will pass this year.

Legislators from both parties have written the conference committee leadership from both houses seeking restoration of the program and its fate should be known in about a week, Bennet said.

County officials also urged Bennet to support local efforts to preserve the Gunnison sage-grouse instead of having it listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We’ve worked a long time at this,” San Miguel County Commissioner Art Goodtimes said of an 11-county effort to preserve habitat for the bird. “Give us a chance to work together.”


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