County wants feds to pay up for land taken off tax rolls

When the federal or state government swoops in to acquire land for wildlife refuges and other purposes, they’re supposed to reimburse counties for revenue lost as a result of removing the acreage from the tax rolls. Otherwise local taxpayers wind up footing the bill.

That’s the way it’s supposed to work. But recently the Meeker County Board of Commissioners ordered an analysis to see whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources actually met their financial obligation under the payment in lieu of taxes program.

The results noted in the West Central Tribune revealed the USFWS never came close to offsetting the property tax revenue lost as a result of the federal government taking possession of previously privately owned land.

Staff with the offices of the county auditor and assessor reviewed the revenues received on a sampling of lands in the county managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service and DNR-managed land.

Their analysis found that the payments in lieu of taxes provided to Meeker County by the Minnesota DNR on state-owned lands in the county were about the same as, if not more than, the property taxes that would be generated if in private ownership.

But when it came to Fish and Wildlife Service properties, the federal payments replaced approximately 11 percent of the revenue that would be realized if the lands were private, according to a report to the commissioners.

The state and federal government own about 2.5 percent of the more than 400,000 acres of the land in Meeker County. That’s nowhere near the government ownership in some northern Minnesota counties. But it all adds up.

The analysis by Meeker County staff included a five-year history of the revenues provided by the federal and state governments to the county. It found that Fish and Wildlife Service payments totaled $82,604.62 during that period. State DNR funds totaled $167,992.58 for state lands open to hunting and $246,210.11 for other natural resource lands.

Fish and Wildlife Service payments hinge on counties receiving a share of revenue generated by land throughout the system. But local governments get shortchanged, as the Meeker County analysis explains.

These payments are authorized by the 1978 amendment to the Refuge Revenue Sharing Act. The Act authorizes Congress to appropriate funds to make up the difference between actual revenue received from Federal properties and the amount that would be owed to local governments. When Congress does not appropriate sufficient funds, USFWS distributes the funds to counties and other local governments on a pro-rata basis.  

But in the end, there’s not much local governments can do to protect their tax base but pass a long-shot resolution urging Congress to finish what it started.

The Meeker County Board of Commissioners supports legislation that would equalize the revenue sharing payments and ditch assessments from Federally-owned land to the amount that would be owed if the property were privately owned, as assessed and levied by taxing districts within the county.