Hydrologist: ‘Rain is the wild card’

Snow-covered mountains rise above the Medicine Bow National Forest in 2017 off Wyoming Highway 230. 

Albany County commissioners are likely to sign onto a class-action lawsuit concerning underfunding by the federal Payment In Lieu of Taxes program, which attempts to compensate counties for lost tax revenue resulting from federal ownership of lands.

Albany County’s PILT payments in recent years have averaged $1.2 million, though the county received $1.6 million in the 2018 fiscal year.

The county is guaranteed to receive funding from joining the lawsuit, since a federal judge already ordered the U.S. in 2017 to make up for two years of incomplete payments between 2014 and 2016.

The decision to join the lawsuit “doesn’t seem that complicated,” Commissioner Heber Richardson said.

“It seems open and shut,” he said.

The damages are unlikely, however, to reach the scale of the annual payments the county already receives.

Pete Obermueller, director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, said only Natrona and Fremont counties are likely to receive more than $100,000 in funding out of the lawsuit.

Statutory formulas for PILT funding — which take into account each county’s population and acres of public lands — entitled counties to almost $1 billion in PILT funding.

However, the Congressional appropriations came up about $16 million short, and the Department of Interior simply reduced the counties’ payments by an equal amount.

Obermueller expressed some concern the lawsuit could lead to some political blowback in Washington, D.C., and spur a drop in support in Congress.

He said it’s difficult for the Department of Interior to calculate PILT payments and counties could come across as ungrateful for suing the U.S. for its two-year mistake.

“My political fear is that we will win this skirmish but lose the war,” Obermueller said.

Considering the widespread participation in the lawsuit, however, he said a decision by Albany County to hold out would be a “silly moralistic argument to stand on.”

“The ship has sailed,” he said. “It’s speculative whether you’ll get punished on the back end anyways.”

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