When Congress finally passed the $700 billion Wall Street bailout in October, it was a triumph -- oddly enough -- for counties in the rural West. Although counties were far from the main legislative action, the bill contained more than $3 billion they desperately wanted.
That's because it funded two programs that had just about run out of time and money. One is Payment in Lieu of Taxes, which compensates counties for services where the federal government owns vast tracts of tax-exempt land. The other is a program called Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination.
Some counties depend on such funding for as much as 10 percent of their overall budgets. In New Mexico, every county but one receives PLT funds. The U.S. House stripped funding for both programs from this year's primary appropriations package. But the bailout bill will pay for each through 2012, thanks to last-minute amendments attached by senators from Western states.
Because the funds came suddenly and unexpectedly, they were a particular boon to counties that were looking at big budget cuts or layoffs. "We used to get about $300,000 from Secure Rural Schools," says Carrie Bird, auditor of Clearwater County, Idaho, which recently began laying off employees. "We didn't budget any of that money because we weren't going to get it."
In neighboring Shoshone County, the funding was arguably even more welcome. There, the roads department typically accounts for about a quarter of the $10 million county budget, but its accounts were slashed by nearly one-third before the federal rescue came through. "It's huge," says county clerk Peggy White, "when you think of all the roads within this county and all the national forest lands that we're supposed to maintain."
But as much as county officials welcome the largesse, they recognize that it's a temporary reprieve. In four years, they'll have to fight the funding battle in Congress all over again. At that point, they may not have another must-pass bill to use as a vehicle. And, as with nearly all other governments these days, their overall general fund-picture is looking grim.
"The easiest way to think of this," says Jeff Spartz, county administrator in Lane County, Oregon, which had recently laid off 8 percent of its workforce, "is that it prevents us from falling off another cliff immediately."