School and county to get a budget windfall from the feds

Federal money will go to math materials and a bus

Instead of receiving the usual $9,000 or $10,000 from the federal government as it has in years past, the Gunnison RE1J school district will be getting a cash infusion of at least $319,000 from the U.S. Department of the Interior. The county will be getting an even bigger windfall.



Gunnison County assistant finance director Ben Cowan says the county has already built more than $525,000 in PILT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) funds into their budget for 2009 and that money could be arriving sometime this month.
The federal government started the PILT program to compensate counties for federal land that can’t be taxed. Counties are paid for each acre of federal land that qualifies.
For the first time since the program got its start, however, counties are getting full compensation instead of partial payments like they have in the past, due to underfunding.
The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 authorizes full PILT payments to counties through 2012. This is the first time counties have been required to give school districts a share.
On May 6, the Colorado state legislature passed House Bill 1250 to mandate how that money would be divvied up between county governments and school districts.
The law allocates 25 percent of the PILT money to county road and bridge projects and 25 percent to the school district.
The remaining money is split between the counties and schools; if the two sides cannot reach an agreement, the money sits in escrow until they do.
County manager Matthew Birnie and school district superintendent Jon Nelson met in early May, before the bill was passed by the legislature, to discuss how the money would be divided. After each entity gets their set 25 percent share of the $1.5 million, as required by the law, there is still more than $600,000 up for grabs.
“During the meeting [Nelson] indicated several times that if [the school district] gets 25 percent of the PILT money they would be pretty happy with that,” Birnie told the commissioners. “They didn’t push hard in the legislation and they’re not taking the attitude that they need 50 percent.”
School district business manager Stephanie Juneau said the district will not live or die by the extra money, but it will go to cover the costs of some things the district needs.
Even before the money is distributed, the district is planning to spend $200,000 on math books and other curriculum-related materials and an additional $90,000 to buy another bus for the district’s fleet.
“This year’s payment is about a $310,000 increase from what we usually get, so we’re pretty happy about that. We had some one-time expenses that we can cover with it,” says Juneau.
Birnie says there is no shortage of road and bridge projects that need to be started in the county. He points out that the school district will get a real benefit from better maintained and improved county roads.
“[Nelson] understands the value of a good county road system to their district,” Birnie told the commissioners. “Kids will be safer traveling in buses on those roads and the buses themselves will last longer.”
Birnie said in his conversation with Nelson it was clear that the two had committed to having an “amicable negotiation” over the remaining PILT funds and that they don’t want “any acrimony locally” as a result of the negotiations.

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