Rural counties could be in for ‘a huge shock’

Crapo

GRANGEVILLE — Officials in Idaho and Clearwater counties are bracing for what looks like a year without the federal funds that support roads, bridges, search and rescue teams and schools.

So far, the Secure Rural Schools Act has not been re-authorized by Congress, and it’s possible it won’t happen.

“It may happen and it may not, but it’s not President Trump’s priority right now,” said Clearwater County Commission Chairman Don Ebert. “We figured we’re not going to get it, at least in the short term — probably not this year. We don’t have to panic yet, but we’re going to have to put the brakes on.”

Secure Rural Schools payments help provide stability to mostly rural, forested counties and school districts affected by reduced revenue due to curtailed federal timber receipts.

The act, originally passed in 2000, expired in September 2015. If it is not re-authorized this year, affected counties will not receive another payment from the program, which could significantly impact the delivery of county services.

In Idaho County, that would mean a drop of $6.3 million from last year’s budget. The money is divided between individual highway districts, the county’s road and bridge department and four school districts.

Idaho County Commission Chairman Skip Brandt said the commissioners plan to meet with Gene Meinen, county road supervisor, in three weeks to talk about the anticipated loss of $1.2 million from that budget.

“It’s going to be a huge shock to the schools and the road districts because of what percentage of their budgets the (Secure Rural Schools Act) really is,” Brandt said. “The (county) road department and each road district are a little different. Some have reserves, some don’t, and I don’t think there are too many people who realize what this really means to them.”

Last year’s payment to Clearwater County was $1.1 million.

Commissioner John W. Smith said the county has been frugal for the past few years and expects “we’ll be able weather a bit of a storm.

“However, if this is permanent, that we’re not going to receive (the money), then obviously we’ll have to change the way we do some things. It will be a big hit on the community.”

Currently, no property tax money goes toward the road and bridge fund, Smith added, and if the federal money is cut off “that may have to change.”

Roads and bridges are funded by the federal money, vehicle registration fees and gas taxes.

On Wednesday, Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., drafted a letter to the Office of Management and Budget urging support for adequate funding of the program.

Secure Rural Schools Act payments, the letter states, “provide critical revenues to more than 775 rural counties and 4,400 schools throughout the country, impacting nine million students across 41 states.”

Reductions in timber production on federal lands have dropped by as much as 70 to 99 percent in some counties over the past 30 years, according to the letter.

“Prevailing uncertainties about (the act) make it nearly impossible for local governments to pay their annual budgets. The federal government has long recognized its obligation to these forest counties, and we are committed to working in Congress to provide these counties the resources they need to serve their populations.”

Kent Stokes, superintendent of Mountain View School District 244 based in Grangeville, has said the school district could manage the lack of federal funding for this year but would have to change game plans if the revenue is not re-authorized soon.

Seven of 10 eastern Idaho counties received Title I funds in fiscal year 2015 for roads and schools under the Secure Rural Schools Act. Clark ($670,304), Custer ($1,097,401) and Lemhi ($1,528,996) counties were the region’s largest funding recipients under the program.