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Secure Rural Schools Act Anything but Secure

Grangeville—Rural Idaho Counties have not received a single Secure Rural Schools and Self-Determination Act or SRS payment in more than 18 months. 

Rural Idaho counties usually get the SRS checks in March.

“We haven’t had a check since March of 2015,” said Idaho County Commissioner Mark Frei out of Grangeville. 

“We’re working without $1.2 million dollars that we usually have in our operating Road and Bridge budget,” Frei says things are so bad they’ve had to make drastic measures.

“So we have to levy higher taxes on everyone that lives within this Road and Bridge Highway District,” he said.

The SRS is administered by the US Forest Service and originally passed in 2000. Before 2000, many of rural communities supported by this act depended on receiving 25 percent of timber sale revenues from nearby national forests to pay for schools and other critical town infrastructure.

“It was initially approved for six years back in 1995,” said Adams County Commissioner Mike Paradis. “Ever since then it was attached to other bills in various forms. In 2015 we had our last payment and it was $774,000. This year we’re working on a budget of $14,494 dollars.”

Paradis says that roads in Adams County are not being repaired, and many paved roads will go back to gravel. He says Adams will have to tax users just to keep roads and bridges operable. But he says there’s talk of another SRS bill.

“Senators Hatch and Wyden have created another bill but we got to pass a budget, Congress has yet to pass that, so we’re operating on what timber sale receipts that are out there,” said Paradis.

There’s a growing restlessness in the West. Western senators are urging the Trump White House and the US budget office to honor the government's promise to fund the Secure Rural Schools and Self-Determination Act.

“SRS funding extends a lifeline to rural communities by funding road repairs, schools and law enforcement to communities. Our rural counties are dependent on the federal government to help with taxes,” said Idaho Senator Mike Crapo.

The SRS grew out of the 2000 Craig-Wyden Bill to pay rural counties for the decline in timber harvests. SRS provides 775 rural counties across the nation and 4,000 schools with funds to support public services including roads and forest health. PILT compensates local governments for non-taxable federal lands in their jurisdictions to provide roads maintenance and law enforcement.

Since expiration last March, rural counties haven’t had enough money for basic services like law enforcement, road repairs, and snow removal.

According to the Idaho Association of Counties, Idaho County has lost more money than any other county, nearly $7.3 million. Five counties will lose more than a million dollars including Boundary, Clearwater, Custer, Lemhi, Shoshone, and Valley. Adams County has seen more and more logging open up this past year.

“If we can’t get SRS funding we need to open up the forests for logging. Evergreen Forest Products in Tamarac put on another shift because they have the volume to do that, but it is still not enough to fund Road and Bridge,” said Commissioner Paradis.

With gridlock in Congress, Idaho Counties are not optimistic about funding this winter.

“The Congressional delegation says they’re working on it, but it’s not really going anywhere, so we have to levy taxes,” said Idaho County Commissioner Frei. But he says Senator Crapo continues to work SRS behind the scenes.

“We stressed the importance of prioritizing the SRS program in the federal budgeting process,” said Crapo in his last Town Hall meeting in Kamiah. 
“SRS payments provide critical revenues to more than 4,400 schools throughout the country. In many cases, these ‘forest counties’ include massive swaths of public lands in national forests,” said Crapo.

Right now a simple two-year extension is a realistic goal according to County Commissioners. Senator Crapo said in the Town Hall meetings that he wants a long-term effort that’ll provide rural counties stable funding allowing counties to fund programs and move forward, “that’s what our goal is,” added Crapo.