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Farm Bill secures 2014 payments for counties home to federal land

County leaders in Western North Carolina breathed a collective sigh of relief after the 2014 Farm Bill was signed into law Feb. 7. The bill includes a one-year extension of the PILT program, which stands for payment in lieu of taxes.

The program allocates money to county governments based on the amount of federally owned land that falls within their borders. Public land doesn’t provide counties any property tax revenue, so PILT helps them recoup some of those dollars. 

“We were very excited that happened,” Kevin King, manager of Swain County, said of the extension. “It holds on for one more year, and we’ll start the process for the 2015 budget to make sure that’s there as well.”

With 87 percent of its land federally owned, Swain County might be called the poster child for the importance of PILT payments. In 2013, the county received $577,000 from the program, the most of any county in North Carolina. In a budget of $13 million, that money accounts for about 4.5 percent of its funding. If the program had been cut, Swain County would have felt it. So would other WNC counties: Swain, Macon, Haywood, Cherokee and Jackson represent five of the six North Carolina counties that receive the largest PILT allowance. 

“We would have to do some drastic furloughs and cut services,” King said. “Fortunately, we didn’t have to do that.”

The bill passed with a vote of 68-32 in the Senate and 388-18 in the House. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., and Congressman Mark Meadows, R-Cashiers, both voted in favor. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., opposed it, but on grounds unrelated to PILT. 

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“Knowing that PILT impacts every county in my district, I went directly to Speaker Boehner and asked him to reauthorize this program when it recently expired,” Meadows said in a press release. “He followed through on my request by including PILT in this legislation, and these annual payments will go out as scheduled in June.”

“Many North Carolina counties depend on the PILT program to provide vital services to residents,” Hagan added, “and I’m pleased the Farm Bill includes this crucial funding.”

Though Burr voted nay, he said, he supports the PILT program. However, he felt that issues such as country of origin labeling and the role of the Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration weighed more heavily against the legislation than PILT did in favor of it. 

“While the Senator is disappointed that the Farm Bill did not address issues specific to many North Carolina farmers — GIPSA, COOL, state authority — we are pleased that western counties will continue to receive PILT payments,” Rachel Hicks, Burr’s press secretary, said in an email.

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