Significant progress (so far) has been made this session in reshaping the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) Payments In-Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program for counties. In 2015, a coalition consisting of WSAC, several member counties receiving WDFW PILT, several conservation groups like The Nature Conservancy, Trust for Public Lands, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and others, joined with WDFW to form the WDFW PILT Coalition.
Counties were concerned because annual payments weren’t being funded by the legislature. Conservation groups and WDFW were concerned because the lack of funding meant the program wasn’t being maintained by the state and that was having a negative impact on how counties and their citizens viewed conservation efforts.
The reason for the WDFW PILT program is to share the ongoing costs associated with the conversion of private land to public ownership for the benefit of the public and wildlife habitat. When WDFW buys land, it can place a disproportionate tax burden on local taxpayers. The land, now owned by the state, is no longer taxable, but the taxes don’t go uncollected. In fact, the tax burden is usually shifted to other privately-owned lands within the county.
In effect, when WDFW purchases private land and makes it public land, local taxpayers within a county where the land is purchased receive a property tax increase. Without WDFW PILT, the local landowners pay the long term ongoing costs for services on public lands that benefit everyone.
Lands that are purchased by WDFW for habitat and recreation still require services from the county, like roads maintenance and bridge maintenance for access, law enforcement, weed control, and emergency response. This ongoing burden, without the compensation that WDFW PILT helps to provide, can be damaging especially in counties where 70% to 80% of the land base is publicly owned and non-taxable. The WDFW PILT program helps to share the responsibility with all residents of the state. WDFW PILT assures the tax shift to other private property owners doesn’t happen.
Unfortunately, WDFW PILT benefits to counties were frozen at 2009 levels in 2012. Some increases have been provided over the last two years, but many counties are only receiving about 50% of what they are owed each year.
This session, companion bills have been introduced (HB 1662 and SB 5696) in both chambers which improve the WDFW PILT program. The strategy behind the legislation is to align the WDFW PILT program with a similar program for certain types of Department of Natural Resources (DNR) land classifications. The DNR program has been fully funded each year even as the WDFW program payments were frozen. Additionally, the bills seek to implement recommendations included in a 2013 Department of Revenue report to the legislature, that until now, have been largely ignored.
Here’s what the bills accomplish:
- WDFW PILT is moved to the State Treasurer’s office to make the payments, just like the DNR program.
- Counties will no longer choose between keeping fees, fines and forfeitures from fish and wildlife-related violations issued in the county or PILT on eligible WDFW-owned lands. Just like the DNR program, counties will keep the fees, fines, and forfeitures and be eligible to receive PILT. This change will provide annual payments to every county, albeit to varying degrees.
- The method for calculating WDFW PILT is changed from one of three calculation methods to a single uniform formula utilizing the local open space rate, similar to the DNR program.
The bills introduced this session are the result of several years of hard work and incremental progress from many within the county family, including County Commissioners and Assessors, and from the state agency and conservation groups. Both bills were very well received in legislative committee public hearings. The House version was voted out of its policy committee this week and is headed to Appropriations for more work. The Senate version is slated to be voted on by its policy committee next week and we are optimistic it will move forward as well.
So far so good for getting WDFW PILT reforms implemented in 2019!