Some local taxing districts have for years been bracing for a big budget hit should one of the main flows of federal money into Idaho County be shut off, and with the Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies’ funding on the chopping block, Idaho County Commissioners sounded an alarm last month.
At the March 14 commission meeting, the board learned local districts, including highways, schools and the county’s road and bridge department, would stand to divide a total of less than $340,000 among them if Secure Rural Schools funding is not reauthorized in Congress this year.
SRS poured more than $6.2 million into Idaho County during fiscal 2016, of which more than $1.2 million flowed to the county road and bridge department.
Last weekend, the Lewiston Tribune reported SRS is “not yet dead” this year, but that “there is little hope Congress will act quickly enough this year” to reauthorize it.
“It seems to me in the event there are no SRS funds, two things have to happen,” county commissioner Mark Frei said during the March commission meeting. “We’re probably going to have to raise taxes a little bit, and we’re probably going to have to cut departments and not do roads at the same level we have been. I don’t see how we keep things at par. To make up for no SRS money, we would have to increase taxes $462 per $100,000 in value, just to keep it at par on the county side. I don’t know if people can afford that. It seems like an impossible tax burden, and yet we can’t let roads completely flop.”
SRS dollars represented more than 60 percent of the road and bridge department’s expenses. If SRS is not renewed, the money the county and the districts would receive instead – known as 25 percent funds – stands to fall about $1.2 million short of last year’s expenses. In order to make up the difference, the county would hypothetically have to levy more than $1.2 million, and doing so would cost local property taxpayers an additional $224 per $100,000 on top of the $223 per $100,000 the county already levies.
County assessor James Zehner said Frei’s calculation would imply taxes rising to more than $600 per $100,000 in value.
“Right now we have one of the lower county levies in the state,” Zehner said. “Lewis County is I think up in that $400 per $100,000 range, because they don’t get the SRS funds we do.”
Figures provided by county clerk Kathy Ackerman indicate most local school districts and highway districts received hundreds of thousands of federal dollars through SRS last year.
SRS sent Mountain View School District 244 more than $1 million, Salmon River 243 more than $85,000, Cottonwood 242 more than $350,000 and Kamiah 304 more than $221,000, with those dollar amounts representing 5-12 percent of the local schools’ annual expenses.
To local highway districts, SRS money represented 7-62 percent of annual operating budgets. The amount being held in reserve varies widely district-to-district, meaning that some districts would be under relatively little pressure to replace federal dollars with local tax dollars, while pressure on their neighbors may be considerably more.
In some cases, state law would not allow local districts to levy enough to replace every federal dollar in their budgets.
For cash-strapped highway districts and the county road and bridge department alike, the loss of SRS money would mean major changes in how roads would be maintained.
After Brandt and Frei relayed ideas about land management changes that would make the 25 percent fund a major funding source once again, road and bridge department head Gene Meinen said “It’d just be a shame to finally get the forest management issue straightened out and to have no roads to haul on.”
Last weekend, April 9, the Lewiston Tribune published an interview with Sen. Mike Crapo detailing the budget fight that may keep SRS from being reauthorized this year.
“I think the biggest problem is the intense pressure being brought on all budgets in Congress by our fiscal crisis, such as the national debt,” Crapo told the Tribune.
Meanwhile, irrespective of whether funding may yet come from Washington DC, this past winter has been hard on local road maintenance budgets – both for the county and for some highway districts.
Last month, Meinen told the Free Press the county had spent nearly $650,000 on winter road maintenance through Feb. 28, compared to about $370,000 the previous year. Most highway districts told the Free Press their winter expenses were running about threefold more than the previous year. The Deer Creek Highway District reported 2017 snow removal expenses ran 15 percent more than they had in 2016, while the Kidder Harris and Union Independent highway districts reported expenses more than fivefold higher.