The massive cuts slated by the federal government in the sequester are leaving the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) scrambling for funds. This has come to bear on Montana and on Lincoln County.
In a letter from Thomas L. Tidwell, the chief of the United States Forest Service, to Gov. Steve Bullock, the federal government is asking the state to return money that was given to the state in January.
The impacted funds, The Titles I, II and III of the Secure Rural Schools Act, would take back $1.145 million from the state of Montana, including $146,246 from Lincoln County.
Presiding County Commissioner Tony Berget was understandably bothered by the budget slash.
“We are losing a lot of money on this sequestration,” Berget said. “Now, we are asking them to justify for us why you want to take from counties.”
Rural school funding has been dropping in the last several years, with the fiscal year 2013 being 95 percent of 2012’s before the sequestration. The amount being sequestered amounts to 5.1 percent of the funds.
In an email from County Administrator Bill Bischoff to Senator Max Baucus’ office, Bischoff details how disproportionately hit Lincoln County will be.
“Lincoln County’s Road Fund is funded almost totally from (Secure Rural Schools Act) funding,” Bischoff wrote. “We have been in the process over the last several years of cutting our road budgets increasingly but have no way to replace the total loss of SRS funding.”
Bischoff continues, saying the county would have to double current tax levies to replace the loss of federal money. It would go to a taxpayer vote. Taxpayers voting to double their own taxes is an unlikely concept.
Bischoff said the $2.8 million Lincoln County received from the federal government for rural schools was down from the $3.5 million last year. That was before the $146,246 asked for on the sequester.
“It’s substantial,” Bischoff said. “The funding has been dropping about 10 percent a year. The majority of the money is to our road funds.”
Kirby Campbell-Rierson, the field director for Sen. Baucus’ office, said Lincoln County would be one of the hardest hit counties by the Forest Service’s sequestered funds.
During the last six years, the USDA has cut more than $180 million from the Secure Rural Schools Act. According to Ryan Yates, associative legislative director for Public Lands at the National Association of Counties, further cuts to the program will create dramatic budgetary shortfalls for 729 rural counties.
Berget said the debt smacked of financial irresponsibility.
“The federal government is balancing its budget on the backs of counties and the state,” he said. “It’s an all-out assault on rural America.”
Yates continued in an email, saying these cuts would severely impact the counties’ ability to provide government services to the public.
The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000, as it is known by its official name, was a bill passed to amend the Forest Service’s county payments program.
It provides funding for roads, forest development, community resources and other specific purposes in rural counties. It was renewed in 2007, 2008 and 2012, with reduced spending for each renewal.