County may divert some federal funds |

County may divert some federal funds

Money would go toward broader uses

Tom Ross

— The Routt County Board of Commissioners is expected to decide today whether to divert a little more than $50,000 annually in federal funding away from its road and bridge budget to a fund that could be used for broader community needs.

The new uses of the money could include reimbursement for emergency services, county planning and the purchases of easements, among other things.

The source of the money is the county’s share of fees the U.S. Forest Service collects on national forest contained within Routt County’s boundaries the county gets 25 percent of those fees.

The greatest portions of the fees come from timber harvest and the Steamboat Ski Area. The county typically receives between $250,000 and $350,000 each year from forest receipts. That amount would stay essentially the same under a new method of payment being considered by the commissioners.

The fees are calculated based on the number of National Forest acres in the county (more than 665,000 acres). The amount has tended toward the lower end the past several years with lower timber sales.

Routt County is required to share at least 5 percent of its forest receipts with local school districts and can transfer as much as 95 percent to the schools. Historically, the county has sent the minimum to the schools, county Finance Director Dan Strnad said. Until this year, the county was obligated to devote the balance of its forest fees to its road and bridge fund. Now, it has other options.

New federal legislation allows the county to opt to receive fees based on a 14-year average rather than on the previous fiscal year. In return, it’s allowed to divert some of the funds, 15 to 25 percent, to other purposes. The schools would still receive at least their minimum 5 percent.

“You have a lot more flexibility as far as what you want to do with some of these monies,” Strnad said. “It’s a lot easier process.”

Strnad presented the new program to the commissioners Monday. They are expected to vote on the question at 8:55 a.m. today.

County Administrator Tom Sullivan agreed the commissioners would essentially be trading the potential upside of forest fees away, in exchange for the increased flexibility offered by the new plan. It is referred to as the “full funding” option.

Strnad has analyzed the county’s options and is advising the county to make the change.

“Given the planned low volume of the timber harvest, the low price for timber and no significant change in ski area receipts (for at least several years), the full payment option is recommended,” Strnad said.

He is suggesting the county set aside the minimum 15 percent for Title III projects and keep the school allocation at 5 percent. He cited the pace of growth, uncertainty over oil prices and the cost of gravel (for road maintenance) as reasons not to send more money to the schools.

The alternative uses for the money come under the federal title of “Category III” funding. The range of Title III projects includes community forestry, community service work camps, forest-related educational opportunities and costs related to emergency services. The 15 percent set-aside program carries with it a requirement that the county seek public comment on its plans to spend the money.

Forest Service fees aren’t the only source of money the county receives from federal lands; it also claims a share of federal mineral releases. Routt County also receives “payments in lieu of taxes,” to offset property taxes it would have collected if the public lands weren’t owned by the federal government.

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