The guessing game

Mesa County appears to be right where it was a year ago when it comes to federal funds for public lands within the county — short half of the $3.2 million it expected and uncertain what the federal government’s rules are to allow it to obtain the entire pot.

It’s an unfortunate game in which the U.S. Department of Interior seems inclined to manipulate the rules to reduce what it pays to Mesa County and other counties like it in the West.

For many years, counties such as Mesa received two distinct pools of funding related to the impacts of federal lands in their territory. The first is known as payment-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILT, and it reimburses counties for property taxes they do not receive because the federal government doesn’t pay property taxes on its lands. The second is mineral leasing money, funds that come from things like natural gas, oil and coal that are extracted from federal lands within the county.

Two years ago, the Obama administration began deducting the amount a county received in mineral lease funds from its PILT payments. Last year, the state Legislature attempted to create a means around this deduction by allowing counties to create special mineral lease districts that would be separate from the counties, thereby allowing the mineral lease money to flow to one local government entity and the full amount of the PILT money to another.

Readers may recall that Mesa County created a special mineral lease district that enlisted considerable local input and effort to determine how to spend a little more than $1 million in mineral lease funds. The decision was to use all of that money to create an unconventional energy center at Colorado Mesa University, a sensible use of the money.

However, the Interior Department decreed that the special mineral lease districts were not sufficiently independent of county government, and therefore the PILT money was cut.

The Legislature has changed the rules for the formation of mineral lease districts, and Mesa County now has to decide whether to reconfigure its district in hopes it will meet the elusive target of Interior Department approval.

The issue may not be resolved unless Congress acts to direct the Interior Department on exactly how the two funds should be appropriated. But congressional action on anything appears unlikely right now.


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