State fleecing 13 counties; payments in lieu of taxes frozen since 2011
Every time the state Department of Fish and Wildlife obtains new land through grant funding or a partnership with a conservation group, it’s in many ways a win-win for anybody who loves the great outdoors.
Continued public access? Check.
Wildlife habitat preservation? Check.
More effective land management with the reduction in checkerboard ownership? Check.
But there’s one more check to be considered: the one you’ll write at tax time.
“When you take a piece of land off the tax rolls,” said state Sen. Linda Parlette, R-Wenatchee, “it’s a tax shift to somebody else.”
“So everybody else has to pay more for the luxury of having that as public land, ” said Yakima County assessor Dave Cook.
In Yakima County, there’s a lot of that “luxury” to be shared. Barely 22 percent of Yakima County is privately owned and subject to property taxes.
Two-thirds of the county is comprised by federal land — national forests and the Yakima Training Center under the Department of Defense — and Yakama Nation trust lands.
Roughly a quarter of what’s left is owned and managed by one of two state departments, either Natural Resources or Fish and Wildlife. And while the federal and tribal lands aren’t growing, the state Wildlife Department adds new acreage nearly every year.
Recognizing the impact that state wildlife lands have on local governments, the state makes payments in lieu of taxes — PILT, for short — to 13 counties where tax bases are hit the hardest. But those payments are not going up.
In 2011, the Legislature froze the wildlife department’s PILT payment at a fraction of what the counties would, by state law, have otherwise been eligible for. (While the state Department of Natural Resources has more land in Yakima County than the Wildlife Department, it is exempt from PILT payments because timber sales on those lands help finance education).
Were Yakima, Kittitas and Okanogan counties receiving PILT for their state-owned wildlife lands based on the lowest tax-rate level, that of public-benefit “open space land” — a PILT prerogative for counties for more than a half-century — the state would have paid them a combined $7.5 million in the past five years.
Instead, those three counties — which between them are home to fully a third of the state’s wildlife lands — received just over $2 million.
The shortfall in Yakima County has been roughly $1.5 million — or nearly $300,000 a year — while Kittitas and Okanogan counties have both received about $2 million less than they would have had not the state frozen the PILT payments.
“When you look at the list of the counties that get PILT, they’re all in Eastern Washington, and they’re these counties just struggling to hang on,” said Laura Berg, land-use policy director for the Washington State Association of Counties.
“This is what we tell the state: This, paying PILT, is a statutory responsibility. And it’s not a lot of money to them. If they were going to fully fund PILT for all 13 counties, it would only be about $5 million a year. For the state, that’s just budget dust.”
But it’s a significant loss for counties which, as Berg said, “live on very, very little and do so much.”
“For those counties,” said Clay Sprague, the Wildlife Department’s state lands manager, “that’s big money.”
But because PILT is paid out of the general fund, it’s also low-hanging fruit for state legislators struggling to balance a budget.
“The policy is not the issue. It’s budgetary,” Berg said. “When they’re looking to save money for education, they’ll cut anywhere.”
That has created some tension between counties and the Wildlife Department and its partners, such as The Nature Conservancy, which in many cases purchase land and deed it to the state.
Officials in Asotin and Okanogan counties have been adamant about not wanting the state to acquire any more land in their counties, and the state has agreed to a moratorium on purchases there.
Within the last year, Kittitas County officials also have said their county’s 176,735 acres of state wildlife land — nearly a fifth of the roughly 1 million acres the Wildlife Department owns or manages in Washington state — is enough.
“We as a board have historically supported land purchases, particularly where it benefits the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, because it makes sense to get that into public ownership somehow,” said Kittitas County Commissioner Gary Berndt.
“But at this point, what we have told Fish and Wildlife is we will not only not support (future) purchases, we may actively campaign against them.”
As a result, The Nature Conservancy will retain ownership, at least for the near future, of the 48,000 acres of forest land it recently purchased in western Kittitas County, rather than hand it over to the state or the Forest Service.
That wouldn’t be a first. The Nature Conservancy owns more than 150,000 acres in Washington, including 20,000 forested acres on the Olympic Peninsula and 35,000 acres of shrub-steppe in Douglas County that has been managed by the conservancy for more than a decade.
But the conservancy would prefer to help Kittitas and other counties get back the full PILT payments to which they are entitled — and state Wildlife Department officials are also anxious to see that happen.
“We want to be a good neighbor. We want their support,” said Sprague, the state wildlife lands manager. “We as an agency fully support and want to pay counties the full PILT obligation they have coming to them, but the Legislature is the one that appropriates the money to pay the PILT.”
Last year, Sprague said, the agency “put forward a bill to the governor’s office asking if we could put that in as agency legislation,” but Gov. Jay Inslee didn’t support the bill.
A bipartisan group of state senators led by Sen. Parlette of Wenatchee, and including Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, then sponsored Senate Bill 5750, which called for an end to the PILT freeze and mandating PILT payments to counties based on the open-space parcel tax rate. (See accompanying story.)
The bill never made it out of the Ways and Means Committee, but Parlette has continued to drum up support in hopes of moving the bill forward this legislative session.
“What I’ve been trying to do for several years is educate people about PILT,” said Parlette, the Majority Caucus chairwoman. “All I can do is raise the awareness of the issue. It’s an uphill battle, but I think we’re making progress.”
And it’s finding supporters.
After SB5750 ended up mired in committee, a coalition including some fairly unlikely partners began forming to support the bill — or, if not Parlette’s bill specifically, its general theme of returning counties to full PILT.
Whether officially or unofficially, the coalition includes county commissioners, state wildlife officials, statewide associations both of counties and of county assessors, and conservation groups such as The Nature Conservancy, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Ducks Unlimited, Trust for Public Land, Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition and Chelan County Trust.
“PILT makes such a major difference for several of these counties,” said environmental lawyer Peter Dykstra, one of the coordinators of the return-PILT coalition. “Without it, counties end up having to make terrible choices we wouldn’t want them to have to make, and it has such a statewide impact.
“This is a case where you’ve got all of these different entities, a lot of whom don’t always have the same objectives and mandates, who have all come to agreement that getting this issue resolved for the counties’ benefit is very important and is the right thing to do.
“And that’s fairly unusual.”