Just two days after it was announced that more than $285 million would be distributed to 41 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico as part of the recently renewed Secure Rural Schools program, Montana’s Washington D.C. delegation is urging that those funds be doled out faster.
In two separate letters to U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell – one from Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines and another from Rep. Ryan Zinke – the three men said it is unacceptable for the agency to wait 45 days to start issuing checks to rural counties.
“Montana’s rural communities have waited long enough,” Zinke said. “I urge the U.S. Forest Service to expedite SRS payments to communities who have seen their economies decimated due to federal mismanagement of our timberlands.”
The SRS program provides funds to rural communities where the federal government owns most of the land. The funds are used to maintain roads, bridges and schools.
Late last year, Congress failed to reauthorize SRS payments and in January, the U.S. Forest Service announced it would provide $50 million in timber payments to 41 states and Puerto Rico, which would have been considerably lower than what was paid in previous years. Many local officials worried about having to make deep budget cuts in the coming months.
On April 14, the U.S. Senate passed legislation extending the SRS program for two years and requiring the federal government to issue retroactive payments to cover fiscal year 2014 beginning in June. The House of Representatives voted on a similar measure last month. Daines, Tester and Zinke all supported the legislation.
“For rural America thrive, communities must be able to maintain quality schools, protect public safety, and invest in roads and bridges,” Tester and Daines wrote. “As we work to improve economic opportunities in our forested counties through responsible timber harvest, increased tourist and outdoor recreation, the Secure Rural Schools program provides necessary support to county budgets.”
Lincoln County is among the biggest beneficiaries of the program in Montana and will receive more than $4.7 million in federal funds. Flathead County will receive $1.7 million and Glacier County will get nearly $34,000.
Officials in Lincoln County said the SRS funds would offer a big boost to the local government’s budget. A struggling economy has plagued the area for years and its coffers took an additional hit last year when it was discovered the county had overtaxed residents by about $2 million.
“This helps us stabilize things because a lot of cuts have already been made,” Peck said. “But we’ve got to find a long-term solution because it’s hard to budget when you don’t know what you’re going to get.”
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