By Raheem Hosseini
Barring a congressional miracle, Amador and hundreds of other rural counties across the nation are in danger of losing federal funds earmarked toward schools and roads.
Congress adjourned last week without extending a federal law that funnels millions in national forest reserve money to rural counties in the country. The law, commonly referred to as the county payments law, was approved by Congress in 2000 as the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act. Expiring earlier this year, it was originally enacted to offset the losses in revenue rural counties endured when the federal government closed national forests off to development.
“It´s been flowing for us for a very long time and with good reason,” said Lou Bosetti, a consultant with the National Forest Counties & Schools Coalition, one of the groups that supports the county payments law. “Most rural counties don´t have a lot of money to (spend on schools and roads).”
Amador County Public Works Director Larry Peterson seconds Bosetti´s comments, explaining the county will lose a quarter of a million dollars in annual federal funds if the law goes unrenewed.
“It´s a lot of money to lose for a small county,” he said.
Peterson said the shortfall could become apparent in any number of areas, from a lack of equipment to a mile of unpaved road.
Bosetti said rural counties have “one last hope” for a reprieve when Congress reconvenes next month. But if a one-year extension isn´t authorized – and Bosetti is skeptical it will – the law´s supporters will almost have to start from scratch by seeking reauthorization with a new Congress.
The 39 California counties that receive nearly $69 million a year in forest reserve funds will get their final payments this month or next. How these counties will fare after the federal dollars dry up depends on whether the money has already been factored into schools and transportation budgets, and on how much rural counties rely on these funds, Bosetti said.
“It´s going to really hurt us next year, because that´s money that we´ve really counted on for a long time now,” said Mike Carey, superintendent for the Amador County Unified School District.
Of the more than $650,000 Amador County received last year in the forest reserve funds, the school district received approximately $260,000. Thirty thousand of that was spent on new buses for special education students within the county´s office of education, but the vast majority of the money went directly into the district´s general fund, explained Barbara Murray, assistant superintendent of business services.
“It´s like a $236,000 hit on our general fund,” Murray said of the expected loss.
It´s a hit that will land this summer, when the district releases its 2007-08 fiscal year budget. With facility costs pretty much locked in, Murray said layoffs and school supply cuts are both possibilities.
“There´s really no funding options to replace that (money),” she added.
But Amador County won´t be the worst off. The $650,000 it receives annually is considerably less than the $9.5 million Siskiyou County receives and the nearly $8 million Trinity County gets each year.
Bosetti, a former Tehama County schools superintendent, estimates that 70 percent of his district´s budget will be impacted. And then there´s Alpine, which is 85 percent federally owned.
“That doesn´t leave much for a tax base,” Bosetti said.
Amador schools are comparatively lucky. The loss of $236,000 makes up less than one percent of the district´s $30 million annual budget. But for a district that hasn´t had to make cuts in the past two years, serious consideration is being given to how the gap will be filled.
For the public works department, the losses could be partially offset by allocations from the statewide transportation bond voters passed in November, though Peterson said the the county had grown to bank on these forest reserve funds.
The apparent demise of the county payments law isn´t catching local officials off guard, though. Peterson informed the Board of Supervisors during a budget hearing in August that it looked like support for the law had dried up. Similarly, Murray said the district has been thinking about this day for the past two years.
“So it´s not like it´s a surprise, but it´s not anything we wanted to see,” she said.
The major roadblock to reauthorizing the act, Bosetti said, has been “turfdom.”
Congressional leaders from areas that don´t receive these funds don´t understand why, while the leaders whose districts do benefit can´t come to terms on an equitable agreement.
“There´s a pot of money and they all want some of it,” Bosetti said.
The end result may be that no one gets it, with the residents of rural counties left wondering why six years wasn´t enough time to reach an agreement.
Reprinted with permission from the Amador Ledger Dispatch