County CAO says restored funding is a temporary fix, wants land put ‘back to work’

Tony D'Souza

The reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools & Communities Act as well as full funding of PILT (Payments-in-Lieu-of-Taxes) were both included in the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, passed by Congress and signed by President Bush on Friday. The bill includes four years of funding for both programs. 

Contacted by phone Monday evening, Siskiyou County Administrative Officer Brian McDermott shared his opinion on the funding measures, which many county officials have lobbied for over the past years.

“I think this is fantastic of course,” McDermott said. “It is critical to Siskiyou County. It represents over $9 million, approximately $4 million to the schools, $4 million to roads, and over $1 million to the county’s general fund. It’s something we’ve been fighting for for years. PILT amounts to about $700,000. But we don’t know how much we will actually see [of the SRS and PILT money] because many of the multi-year packages have declining payments. It is not clear yet which was passed.”

When asked if the four year reprieve will give the county time to prepare for the eventual end of the SRS and PILT, McDermott became animated.

“It certainly gives us more time,” McDermott began, “but my concern is that the lawmakers in Washington, they feel that the timber counties have to stop relying on these funds. But what does the federal government want us to do when they own 70% of the land in Siskiyou County? What can we do to offset the loss of 70% of our property tax revenue? Because the county’s money comes from property taxes. We were always happy in sharing 25% of timber sales with the federal government. Some time ago the Forest Service stopped cutting trees. It started with the spotted owl back in the ’80s, now we can’t even get a salvage sale. We have to tell the federal government, ‘You put this land back to work.’ We’ll share revenue on the 100 year old formula. I’m as conservative as the next guy, but our bread and butter is property taxes. If they don’t pay us property taxes, what do they expect us to do? We need to take care of police services, education, roads; property taxes are how we survive. In four years, we are not going to be any better off. We need a permanent solution.”

McDermott went on to discuss revenue-earning possibilities he sees for the county in the absence of SRS and PILT. “We need to figure out a way to put the land back to work that’s not so unpalatable to people. The future of wood products may be in energy. I would like to see more research done to develop cellulosic ethanol, which could be used to replace gasoline. Also our forest appears to have excess biomass loading that could be used in cogeneration facilities to produce energy.”