Counties with the most federal lands don’t necessarily get highest per-acre PILT payments

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

The Department of the Interior announced Thursday that Idaho will receive $35.8 million for untaxable land owned by the federal government. Because of the way those payments are calculated, Idaho’s most populous counties will see the highest rates of payment per acre, even though they account for a fraction of Idaho’s federal land.

The federal government calculates PILT, or Payment in Lieu of Taxes, based on both the number of acres owned by the federal government and the population of the county.

That population factor means some of the Idaho’s rural counties with the highest number of federal acres received the lowest payments per acre.

Custer County, for example, has 2.9 million acres of federal land, one of the highest in the state. About 90 percent of the county is owned by the federal government. But it received one of the lowest payment rates this year, at 29 cents an acre. 

Custer County’s total payment was $840,021 for 2022. Meanwhile, Ada County, with just 297,843 federally owned acres, received $873,010. 

In other words, the most populated county in the state received slightly more in PILT payments than Custer County for about one tenth of the federal acreage. 

Nearly all of Idaho’s counties with more than 1 million federal acres, including Idaho, Owyhee, Lemhi and Shoshone, received less than 50 cents per acre. The most populous counties, including Canyon, Kootenai, Twin Falls, and Bonneville, all received at least $2.60 per acre.

PILT payments have long been a source of frustration for rural Idaho counties, said Seth Grigg, executive director of the Idaho Association of Counties.

“When you look at it, it’s certainly inequitable. I think most counties recognize it,” Grigg told Idaho Reports in a Thursday interview. The problem, he said, is there is little appetite in Congress to change the population-based sliding scale, as most Congressional representation comes from populated urban areas.

That leaves rural counties with large amounts of untaxable federal land trying to bridge the gap between small tax bases and necessary public safety services. In some cases, those rural counties have higher tax rates than urban counties to help them make up the difference, Grigg said.

There are multiple categories of land assessments, such as irrigated agriculture, dry agriculture, bare forestland, and different classes of residential and commercial, all with different values. That makes it hard to say what sort of revenue Idaho counties would see if some, or all, of those 32.6 million acres of federal land became private and taxable.

“There’s no way of knowing what the value would be,” Grigg said.

Click here to see county-by-county payments and federal acreage, and read the Department of Interior’s PILT press release below.

Interior Department Announces $35.8 Million in Payments to Idaho to Support Vital Services in Communities 

Program compensates communities for supporting nation’s public lands, waters; invests in firefighters, police, schools, and road construction

WASHINGTON — The Department of the Interior today announced that 44 local governments in Idaho will receive a total of $35.8 million in Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) funding for 2022. Because local governments cannot tax federal lands, annual PILT payments help to defray the costs associated with maintaining important community services.

PILT payments are made for tax-exempt federal lands administered by the Department’s agencies – including the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service. In addition, PILT payments cover federal lands administered by the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission. Payments are calculated based on the number of acres of federal land within each county or jurisdiction and the population of that county or jurisdiction.

“This program is an important example of the federal government’s commitment to continuing to be a good neighbor to the communities we serve. The nearly $550 million being distributed will help local governments carry out vital services, such as firefighting and police protection, construction of public schools and roads, and search-and-rescue operations,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.

Since PILT payments began in 1977, the Department has distributed nearly $10.8 billion to states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The Department collects more than $12.1 billion in revenue annually from commercial activities on public lands. A portion of those revenues is shared with states and counties. The balance is deposited into the U.S. Treasury, which in turn pays for a broad array of federal activities, including PILT funding.

Individual payments may vary from year to year as a result of changes in acreage data, which is updated annually by the federal agency administering the land; prior year federal revenue-sharing payments reported annually by the Governor of each state; inflationary adjustments using the Consumer Price Index; and population data, which are updated using information from the U.S. Census Bureau.

A full list of funding by state and county is available on the Department’s Payments in Lieu of Taxes page.

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<strong>Melissa Davlin</strong> | Host, Lead Producer
Melissa Davlin | Host, Lead Producer

Melissa Davlin is the lead producer and host of Idaho Reports. She has covered the Idaho Legislature since 2012. She also produces for Outdoor Idaho and Idaho Public Television. She has won multiple awards for her work, including a regional Emmy for her documentary on Chinese immigration in Idaho, Idaho Press Club broadcast reporter of the year for 2015 and 2019, the Idaho Press Club First Amendment Award, and the 2019 Boise State University Enhancing Public Discourse award. She lives in Boise with her husband and two children. 

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