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County entities losing tax dollars

Twenty-five percent of the land in Lawrence County belongs to Uncle Sam.

Local officials have long contended that while they like this federal relative, they think maybe he's a bit too greedy and are not happy with the way he gobbles up forest and farm lands that could be used for industry and homes.

Lawrence County Commissioners Thursday expressed concern about the

68,843 acres the Wayne National Forest owns here, and expressed regret that the federal government forks over only $78,064.63 yearly as mineral royalties and payments in lieu of taxes (PILT).

Commissioners say that amount is far short of the property tax money lost every year, not to mention the money lost because the land sits idle when it could be farmed or developed for housing or industry.

Right now with the current economic crunch, the issue of lost tax dollars is a sore subject with many courthouse officials.

They shared their concerns with Tony Condia, the southeast Ohio field representative for Senator George Voinovich.

"We're pro-forest," Commissioner George Patterson said. "But when it comes to dollars and cents, it's rough. It affects our budget. Schools districts are affected, too."

Lawrence County Chief Deputy Auditor Chris Kline estimated that, if that land were privately owned, it could net as much as $250,000 yearly in property taxes for the cash-strapped county.

This is based on a calculation of a $300 acre average value multiplied by 68,843 acres, which equals $20,652,900. Based on a tax assessment of 35 mils, minus the amount forwarded to the state, leaves an estimated $253,000.

"We're losing some money," Kline said. "The worst hit are the schools."

Symmes Valley Superintendent Ton Ben said he calculated the cost to his school district years ago.

"It's about $67,000 a year we lose," Ben said. "It's a battle I've been fighting for seven years. I've been very vocal about this. I can't blame people for selling their land to the federal or even state government because they get a great price for their land. But there's a great price to be paid as well when this occurs because we don't regain those tax dollars that are lost."

Ben said there have been two major purchases of land within his district in the last six to 10 years. With each purchase, the amount of property taxes within his district shrinks.

"It's not a personal item. I want what's best for our school," he said.

Commissioner Jason Stephens said he favored a moratorium that at one time forbade the forestry service from purchasing additional land.

"Money that's used to buy land should be forwarded as PILT money," Stephens said.

Wayne National Forest Spokesman Ken Arbogast said the subject of lost tax dollars versus the benefits of having a national forest in the county is a complicated issue.

Arbogast said he doubts that the county could get $250,000 yearly in taxes from the land, since some of the unused land in Lawrence County is eligible for enrollment in various state programs that would affect tax rates.

"Most counties have substantial enrollment in Current Agricultural Use Valuation (CAUV)," Arbogast said. "It's a prudent thing to do if you have timber, and so forth."

Arbogast also said that beginning in 2001, the federal government gave affected counties a choice of how activity revenue sharing monies could be distributed.

Part of the PILT monies are revenue-sharing funds the federal government passes on to counties for activities that took place on county lands in the forestry service.

Under the new full-payment option, Arbogast said Lawrence County could actually have gotten an additional $46,600 in federal monies.

Under the full-payment option, each county received a revenue-sharing payment based on the three highest years of revenue for activities in the years between 1983-99, rather than the older 25-percent payment.

"There are also intangible benefits to having a national forest in your county." Arbogast said. " The Ohio Department of Tourism estimated last year that 600,000 people visited southeastern Ohio, and these people typically spend $75 a day while they're here. This money is spent on food, lodging and any number of things. There are a fair number of hunters who use forest lands and while they're here they buy supplies. There is a fair amount of revenue generated for counties others than the payments we make in lieu of taxes."

Meanwhile, county officials have asked Condia to arrange a meeting with federal and state officials to discuss the situation. Teresa Moore/The Ironton Tribune