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Beltrami County Board: County will lobby to help keep PILT

Beltrami County plans to lobby hard next session to ensure that state payment-in-lieu-of property taxes isn't cut.

"This is an important issue to Beltrami County," County Commissioner Joe Vene said Tuesday during a briefing on PILT, a payment from the state that recognizes services given to public lands. "We need to maintain it."

"With only a third of the county taxable land, PILT is tremendously important to us," said Board Chairman Jack Frost.

The County Board also passed a resolution that in Beltrami County, there be a no net gain of public lands.

The state faces at least a $5.4 billion budget deficit when the Legislature convenes in January, and commissioners are fearful that PILT may be on the chopping block. The Association of Minnesota Counties formed a task force on the issue, and will be making recommendations.

The Office of the Legilslative Auditor also issued a report on natural resource land that included PILT, said County Administrator Tony Murphy.

PILT "is really a complex animal, one that pays at different rates," Murphy said. "They ae based on degrees of restricted use, with higher PILTs for more restrictive uses."

Consolidated Conservation Lands - Con-Con lands -- are the most restrictive and are usually swamp lands that aren't marketable. Only a half-dozen counties have Con-Con lands, and PILT can be paid based on the value of the land or on the number of acres on a per acre payment. Beltrami County, with the most Con-Con lands, chose the latter.

Beltrami County received its 2009 PILT payment last month totaling $2.1 million, which includes $1.77 million in PILT for Con-Con lands, of which Beltrami County has 354,231 acres.

The county doesn't receive all the funds -- some of the total goes to school districts in the county and townships. The county has also set aside funds for community priorities in northern Beltrami County.

The county uses $900,000 a year to pave three-digit county roads.

But Beltrami County officials fear that metro-area legislators will see such large sums of money -- $21.8 million in 2010 -- going to predominately northern Minnesota counties and will attempt to cut back on PILT.

And the legislative auditor's report didn't help, Murphy said, causing more concerns with what he called inaccurate information. "The report has people confused."

Another concern, Murphy said, is the recent addition of more public lands, which dilutes the PILT pool of money set aside by the Legislature.

"Metro commissioners' feeling on PILT is very different than ours," Murphy said. "They think nothing of buying 100 acres and making it a public park, even waiving the PILT payment. But we have so much public lands already."

That's a reason commissioners also Tuesday passed a no-net gain resolution on public lands in an attempt to stop taking private lands off the tax rolls.

"More public lands are being bought," Murphy said. "There will be a lot more land eligible for PILT in the future."

He said he had "a hard time understanding why we wouldn't pass a no-net-gain resolution."

Such a resolution "sends a message that taking land off the tax rolls means you have to come to us first."

The state of Minnesota has policy in which the Department of Natural Resources will go to the affected county for input, but the federal government has no such policy.

"We're concerned about the further eroding of our tax base," Murphy said.

Frost, however, suggested the resolution be labeled as philosophy rather than policy, as it really can't be enforced. Commissioners left it as is.

"It is a policy, but it's also a guide," said Commissioner Quentin Fairbanks.

"They'll still do what they want, but at least we have something to wave in their face," Murphy said. "I really believe this is a symbolic gesture. It really doesn't have a lot of teeth."

The resolution specifies that "no new lands may be qcquired in Beltrami County by the DNR, USFWS and/or similar agencies via purchase, environmental land trust, or other method, unless an equal amount of property is sold back to private ownership, unless there is a guarantee that that there will be no loss of revenue to the local taxing authorities."

"We have something other counties don't have -- Rod Skoe -- he understands this more than any other," Murphy said.

Skoe, the DFL senator from Clearbrook, is vice chairman of the Senate Taxes Committee and heads its property tax division. Murphy said he and Senate Taxes Chairman Tom Bakk, DFL_Cook, have in the past succeeded in keeping PILT at its budgeted level, plus inflation.

Commissioners said they want to meet with Skoe later this year to work up a lobbying strategy for the 2011 session to explain to all lawmakers the importance of PILT.