Lincoln County will soon receive $4.1 million in payments from the U.S. Forest Service, thanks to reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools program.
Approximately two-thirds of that amount will go into the county’s road budget, with the remainder going to local school districts, according to Lincoln County Commissioner Jerry Bennett.
Under the SRS program, created by Congress in 2000, the Forest Service compensates county governments with forested federal land for revenue lost due to dropping timber production. These funds are intended for schools and other critical services, such as roads and law enforcement.
In Lincoln County, SRS funds support schools and roads.
The program expired in September 2015, but was reauthorized in the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill lawmakers passed in March.
County officials do not see the money — a retroactive Fiscal Year 2017 payment expected to arrive any day — as a windfall.
“It’s a Band-Aid on an arterial bleed,” said Commissioner Mark Peck.
Peck was referring to the county’s dwindling road fund reserves. It currently stands at roughly $12 million, down from a high of over $20 million.
Earlier this year, the county began looking for ways to reduce its annual $3 million road budget to extend the reserves and buy time to find a long-term funding solution.
County Administrator Darren Coldwell asked the roads department to reduce its budget to $2 million, and has floated the idea of a levy.
Currently, Lincoln County is one of only two counties in Montana — the other is Mineral County — that does not impose a road tax upon its residents.
“Our focus will still be to lessen the county budget,” Coldwell said. “This (payment) isn’t Christmas morning.”
Last year the Commission also began reconsidering the plowing of snow from certain roads to save time and money.
The commissioners also approved a new snow removal policy and ordinance.
The Daily Inter Lake contributed to this report.