TELL CITY – The federal government’s underfunding of payments to communities with federal forest lands could mean more money going into county coffers through payments in lieu of taxes.
According to county attorney Chris Goffinet, judges overseeing a recently decided national class-action lawsuit ruled in favor of plaintiffs in Utah and Oregon who argued that the government had underpaid the benefit starting in 2015. The ruling opens up an opportunity for other communities to also gain from the settlement.
Perry County could be one of the 1,900 local governments around the country to qualify for a portion of the undisclosed payout.
The U.S. Department of the Interior, the agency which oversees such payments, announced last month that it had already earmarked a record $552.8 million appropriation for its 2018 regular installment. Any money garnered form the lawsuit will be in addition to that amount.
With more than 58,000 acres comprising the Hoosier National Forest within Perry County, a large portion of the rural community is nontaxable. In fact, Perry County contains the largest amount of federal forest in the state, edging out Orange County by about 16,000 acres.
To partially compensate counties, the federal government offers payments in lieu of taxes to offset losses in property taxes. In years past, Perry County has recouped about $80,000 annually in federal payments. While the annual allotment is set by federal statute – calculated by acre and number of residents – County Auditor Pam Goffinet said updates to the government’s data typically serves as a variable toward actual funding.
Given such fluctuation, payments are generally within a predictable range though. Yet, she added that the lawsuit has already benefited the county as the current year’s installment far surpasses previous years, nearly doubling to 144,000 – and that amount could grow based on the ruling.
While Perry County was not a participant in the lawsuit, qualifying communities across the nation are eligible to sign up for a portion of the additional funding. Chris Goffinet said he added the county’s name into the pot to recoup money. It’s not yet known what their portion of the draw will be, though he added that it’s “pretty assured we will get something.”
Looking forward to future years, he went on to say he believes the county will see a sizable increase in their payments for federal lands. County commissioners have authorized their attorney to keep working on the issue.