PORT ANGELES — U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer will “keep pushing” for Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILT) for rural counties like Clallam and Jefferson that have large swaths of non-taxable federal lands, he said.
Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, told Clallam County commissioners during a virtual meeting Monday that there was bipartisan support to continue the program, which “flies under the radar unless your county’s really impacted by it.”
Kilmer represents the 6th Congressional District, which includes the North Olympic Peninsula.
He said not all of his colleagues understand the value of the program.
“We’ll keep pushing,” Kilmer said. “It’s really valuable if you all push, too.”
Federal PILT payments are provided to local governments to help offset the loss in property tax revenue by the existence of federal lands like Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest.
PILT provide services such as firefighting and police protection, construction of public schools and roads and search-and-rescue operations, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Clallam County, which has 523,298 acres of federal land, received $1.10 million in PILT funds in 2020, county Chief Financial Officer Mark Lane said Thursday.
Jefferson County, which has 705,399 acres of federal land, received $1.57 million from PILT this year, according to Interior.
Clallam County Commissioner Randy Johnson said the federal payments would be “critical” in 2021 given the financial impacts of COVID-19.
“Most people don’t know what PILT is,” Johnson said.
“And we’re in a county where it should matter between the Olympic National Park and the (U.S.) Forest Service, and the state lands, for that matter.”
Commissioner Bill Peach asked Kilmer to predict whether PILT payments would be up, down or flat in 2021.
“If I were guessing, I would guess it will be the same,” Kilmer said.
Katie Allen, Kilmer’s legislative director, said the House-approved spending bill for fiscal year 2021 funded PILT at 2020 levels.
“Again, there’s a lot of question marks about how we’re going to fund regular federal programs past Sept. 30 when we start the new fiscal year,” Allen said.
“So that would be the caveat that I would give. Beyond that level of uncertainty, I don’t have any reason to be suspicious that we would see a decrease in the total amount of funding provided for this program.”
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, has introduced a bill that would reform PILT and provide more predictability for local governments, Kilmer said.
“People are going to be looking to NACo (National Association of Counties) and to folks like you to make sure that there’s no unintended consequences,” Kilmer told county officials.
“I think reform on its face would have to happen with you, not to you.”
Kilmer asked commissioners how the coronavirus pandemic was affecting the county’s bottom line.
“My best guess is we’re $3.5 million in the hole,” Johnson said of 2021 budget projections.
“So as you can imagine, PILT’s just critical for us.”
Lane said the “biggest question” for 2021 would be sales tax revenue.
Lodging tax revenue was down 90 percent in Clallam County after COVID-19 restrictions took effect, Johnson said.
“I’m normally the optimist,” Johnson said.
“But right now I’m a pessimist because I think we haven’t seen all the ramifications of a lot of businesses that will not be here when you get though on the other side of this (pandemic).”
Kilmer said he, too, was concerned about the long-term impacts of COVID-19.
“Just so you know, we are in very frequent touch with the Black Ball team,” Kilmer said of the company that operates the MV Coho ferry.
The Coho, which has plied the waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca since 1959, stopped its daily sailings between Port Angeles and Victoria amid the COVID-19 outbreak March 29.
The Canadian government later closed the border for nonessential travel.
Black Ball Vice President of Marketing Ryan Malane was not immediately available for comment Thursday.
“We’ve already sponsored some legislation that we think should be helpful to (Black Ball) and got something in, peculiarly, the defense bill that we think should be helpful there,” Kilmer told county commissioners Monday.
“We told them we want to do whatever we can to help them.”
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at [email protected].