Kittitas County is part of a coalition of Eastern Washington counties, environmental groups and recreational groups that are trying to persuade state lawmakers to follow through on their commitment to fully pay payments in lieu of taxes.

Kittitas County has missed out on about $2 million in PILT from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife since payments were frozen by the Legislature in 2011 to their 2009 levels.

Kittitas, Yakima, Okanogan, Asotin, Lincoln and Chelan counties have joined the coalition and Kittitas County Commissioner Paul Jewell suspects the remaining counties receiving PILT also will join.

Jewell said that until 2011, the state acquiring land wasn't a problem. It provided more opportunities for outdoor recreation and helped eliminate a checkerboard of private and public land.

Most land in Kittitas County is publicly owned. About 75 percent of the county is either federal or state land, of which about 170,000 acres are owned by state Fish and Wildlife. The Fish and Wildlife total is more than any other county, Jewell said.

Counties receive separate PILT and timber revenues for federally owned land as well.

Among the largest landholders in the county are the U.S. Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife, Suncadia, the U.S. Department of Defense, the state Department of Natural Resources and the Nature Conservancy in Washington, Jewell said.

Fish and Wildlife is currently proposing acquiring an additional 215 acres in the Teanaway that is adjacent to the Teanaway Community Forest.

When Fish and Wildlife buys land, it places a disproportionate tax burden on local taxpayers, Jewell said.

"The tax burden gets spread out among all the land," he said. "That 25 percent has to bear the burden of all the taxes that have to be paid to provide services like roads, bridges, cops."

To counteract that, the state provides PILT for 13 counties with state land, which remedied that problem, Jewell said.

But now that Fish and Wildlife PILT is frozen, Kittitas County misses out on at least $500,000 each year in PILT for which it would otherwise be eligible.

PILT impacts

If the Legislature unfroze PILT payments, the benefits to rural counties would be huge, said Laura Berg, land-use policy director for the Washington State Association of Counties.

PILT not only supports counties’ general funds, but also supports junior taxing districts, such as fire districts, cemetery districts and school districts.

If the Legislature unfroze PILT payments and $2,000 made its way to a rural fire district, that extra funding would be significant, she said.

“We had been working on this dilemma for several years and just had a hard time budget-wise with the recession,” she said, adding that funding education has been the priority for lawmakers.

It would cost the state under $6 million every two years to provide full PILT to all 13 counties, she said.

The state now provides $579,999 in PILT to the counties each year.

Kittitas County has more PILT-eligible land than any other county in Washington, but doesn’t receive the most payments, Jewell said.

Each year, Kittitas County collects $143,974 in Fish and Wildlife PILT, while Okanogan County, which has less WDFW land, collects $151,402.

Before PILT was frozen, the county commissioners had been open to state land acquisitions on a case-by-case basis, he said.

The board also has supported land acquisitions that supported that Yakima Basin Integrated Plan.

“We have now taken the position where we’re going to oppose nearly all acquisition in our county until this PILT issue is solved,” Jewell said. “Here we are in 2016 and nothing has changed.”

State bills

Jewell hopes there will be change soon. He said there are two bills — one in the state Senate and one in the House — making their way through the Legislature.

State Sen. Linda Parlette, R-Wenatchee, sponsored a bill that would end the PILT freeze. The bill is supported by 13th District state Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake.

A similar bill is also in the House, and will be discussed at 3:30 p.m. on Monday. Jewell plans to testify during the hearing.

It doesn’t seem likely the bills will pass during this session, said state Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, who also supports the legislation.

“We should honor our deals and when the government makes a promise we should follow through with that promise,” he said. “The reality is money is tight around here and you have a Supreme Court ordering us to spend all of our excess money on education.”

Manweller said it’s more likely the PILT issue will be addressed during next year’s long session.

But, he said, the unique coalition has gotten lawmakers talking about the issue this year. He described the issue as a split between Eastern and Western Washington lawmakers, but said the coalition addresses both sides. The environmentalists’ views speak to West Side lawmakers, he said.

“What you have is (West Side) lawmakers beholden to environmental groups,” he said. “If you’re on the east side, they took your land and didn’t give you any money for it.”

He said large land acquisitions in Eastern Washington add to the east-versus-west divide on the issue.

“Nobody buys 40,000 acres in downtown Seattle,” he said. “They buy 40,000 acres in the Teanaway Forest.”

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