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Lincoln County Officials Applaud Secure Rural Schools Funding Commitment
Sequester cuts will not impact 2014 funds, but officials worry about future payments
Lincoln County Commissioner Mike Cole meets with the Flathead County Commissioners to discuss Flathead and Kootenai forest issues on Jan. 27. - Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
Lincoln County commissioners, and rural county officials across the country, breathed a sigh of relief last month when a top U.S. Department of Agriculture official announced the “sequester will not apply to the FY14 payments (of the Secure Rural Schools funds).”

The official, USDA Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment Robert Bonnie, made the statement while being peppered with questions from Montana Rep. Steve Daines during a Natural Resources Committee Oversight hearing on Jan. 14. For some rural areas, where the federal government holds more land than private owners, SRS funding has become a lifeline, especially in Lincoln County. Nearly three-quarters of land in Lincoln County – 72 percent – is held by the U.S. Forest Service. SRS funds are doled out to places like Lincoln County because there are not enough property taxes to balance the budget.

SRS funds have continued to drop in recent years and could cease all together in the near future, according to Lincoln County Commissioner Tony Berget.

“It makes it hard to govern when you don’t know what you’re getting for tax dollars,” he said. “The cost to maintain roads goes up every year, and on average we lose 7 percent of SRS funds. Add another 5 percent cut and that’s tough.”

According to Lincoln County Executive Assistant Bill Bischoff, a vast majority of the SRS funds the county receives go toward road maintenance. In 2010/2011, the county’s $5,191,991 road budget included $3,250,541 from the SRS program. Three years later, the road budget was $3,874,329 and included $2,734,913 from SRS funds.

Commissioner Mike Cole said if SRS funds were to disappear, the county would have to find funding elsewhere or reduce services, including plowing.

“If SRS goes away, we’ll have to put roadwork in a different tax bracket and that could be tough,” he said. “We’re having discussions about what roadwork we should do and what roadwork we must do.”

If SRS funds ended, it would impact Lincoln County’s entire budget, which averages $15 million annually and is already squeezed. In January, the commissioners voted to cut two elected positions: a justice of the peace and the county’s school superintendent.

Justices Jay Sheffield and Stormy Langston both can run for a single position during this year’s election and each will serve out the remainder of their terms in 2014. The superintendent of schools, Ron Higgins, will also serve out his term this year before the position is dissolved. Higgins’ work will then be passed on to a contractor or the country treasurer or clerk and recorder.

“Lincoln County is losing funds. We’re deficit spending because the rural school funds continue to shrink,” Berget said after the vote to cut the positions.

Cole was the lone dissenting vote on the matter. He said smarter cuts could have been made.

“While we do have to cut the budget, and there is no doubt about that, I don’t think we need to cut whole departments,” Cole said. “We can make percentage cuts.”

While Daines pestered federal officials about future cuts, he also urged the Senate to move forward with legislation that would extend the SRS program for another year. H.R. 1526, the Restoring Health Forests for Healthy Communities Act, passed the House of Representatives with bipartisan support.

“Absent this legislation, our counties will be back at square one – facing questionable reauthorization of SRS funds without long term sustainability,” Daines said.
 
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