To the Editor:
Ewen-Trout Creek School Superintendent Loren Vannest stated in an April 30 Daily Globe article that the loss of federal aid is a serious problem. He’s right. Business manager Tammy Gibson said it is as if we are getting punished for having federal lands in our district (241,627 acres). She’s right. However, it’s important to know just who is punishing us.
It’s popular to blame Washington or Lansing. However, the facts show the ones to blame are our county commissioners and some local politicians who haven’t spoken out or even attended important meetings.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, I’ve received documents from the school, the township, the county, the Department of Interior, state Senate and House of Representatives, federal Congress members, attorney general opinions, federal court records and United States Supreme Court rulings, copies of county minutes and recorded statements by commissioners. These records show who is really punishing our school and township.
The federal government pays “payment in lieu of taxes,” or PILT funds, for federal land to make up for lost tax dollars. In 2013, the Department of Interior paid $460,961. Over some 20 to 30 years, that’s millions of dollars. These funds used to come to the school and township in the south end of Ontonagon County. The county commissioners sued in federal court to get control of the PILT. They lost.
The county then paid lobbyists thousands of dollars to lobby Congress to change the law, giving the county control of PILT. County records received under FOIA show the county then decided to keep all the PILT money to balance their own budget, breaking their promise to share the PILT with the township and school district.
Contrary to the commissioners’ interpretation of the attorney general opinion, Michigan’s School of Choice law allows the county to give PILT to E-TC School as they had promised. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the county can give PILT to the township.
Both the state and federal government pay PILT for land that cannot be taxed. Seventy-three percent of the federal forest land in the county is in the E-TC district and the south end, of which the county now keeps all the federal PILT funds.
The state land is located mostly in the north end of the county. It’s interesting that PILT from state-owned land in the north end of the county is shared with their townships and school district.