Lewistown News-Argus: Money in the bank: County receives $1.5 million in federal PILT funds

by Deb Hill

Funding to reimburse counties for their work on federal public lands was announced last week, and Fergus County received more than almost all other Montana counties.

According to a press release from Senator Jon Tester’s office, this year’s Payment in Lieu of Taxes amount for Fergus County is $1.55 million, up from $1.4 million last year.

“This is money we get because of federal lands in the county that we provide law enforcement on, or where we maintain some of the roads. Because we can’t tax those lands but provide services, the federal government reimburses us,” said County Commission Presiding Officer Ross Butcher.

Fergus County received more PILT funding than 49 of Montana’s 56 counties. Butcher said the funding is based on a formula that includes the amount of federal land and the county’s population.

“The formula works really well for Fergus County,” Butcher said. “For the smaller, less populated counties, it’s not so good.”

Local examples include Judith Basin County, which received $319,889 in PILT funds, and Petroleum County, which got only $117,982.

“I’m on the National Association of Counties Public Lands Steering Committee, and the distribution to small counties is something we are trying to work on, so those little counties get more.” Butcher said.

Meanwhile, Butcher said some of Fergus County’s PILT will be used in the General Fund, for public safety and for the Road and Bridge Department.

“The road tax doesn’t come close to covering the costs of road maintenance,” Butcher said. “PILT makes a huge difference.”

There have been years when PILT funding was slow in coming or when counties did not receive full funding.

“There are counties that have been hurt when they budgeted for PILT funding but it didn’t come through,” Butcher said. “That’s why we don’t budget for it until it’s in the bank. We don’t spend it, expecting it to come in later.”

Overall, over $43 million in PILT funds was approved for Montana counties through the 2024 government funding bill approved by Congress.

“Montana’s rural counties rely on PILT funding to provide essential services they otherwise would not be able to afford,” Tester said.