Uncle Sam says the check is in the mail.

The Bureau of Land Management has sent checks to Utah counties totaling $9.1 million as payment in lieu of taxes for federal lands that are exempt from local government taxes.Getting the biggest check was Box Elder County with $867,000, followed by Washington County with $828,000 and Tooele County with $714,000. All 29 counties received payments, with the smallest check - $10,580 - going to Morgan County.

Nevertheless, Utah counties would like to see fatter checks in the future.

"If you follow the philosophy of the federal government, no, it's not enough," said Brent Gardner, executive director of the Utah Association of Counties. "But half a loaf is better than no loaf."

A law passed by Congress in 1976 set up a formula for reimbursing counties for the costs of fighting fires, maintaining roads and search and rescue on federal lands that are not subject to local taxes.

But Gardner said Congress imposed arbitrary limits on the formula, relating it in large part to population. Low-population counties like Wayne, Kane and Garfield have huge blocks of federal land that attract hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.

"Those kind of counties receive smaller payments, yet they are impacted heavily by outside populations," Gardner said, adding the outside population is not factored adequately into the formula.

The BLM made payments totaling $102,761,372 to local governments in 49 states, the District of Columbia and three territories. Only two states, New Mexico ($10.5 million) and California ($10.6 million), received more money than Utah.

Like most other states, Utah's payments in lieu of taxes will go mostly to pay for vital services like fire and police services, especially search and rescue. In some cases, the payments represent a significant portion of the counties' annual budget.

Payments in lieu of taxes are made for tax-exempt federal lands administered by the BLM, Forest Service, National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and for federal water projects and some military installations. The BLM administers the federal program because it is the largest single federal land manager with 270 million acres of public lands.

"While federal lands provide important local recreational and economic opportunities, their tax-exempt status can have fiscal impacts on the governmental units that surround them," said BLM Director Cy Jamison. "This partnership is the federal government's way of helping to minimize those impacts."

Gardner adds, however, that counties throughout the country are trying to educate their congressional delegations about continued problems with the formula.

"We are saying, `We appreciate what you have done for us, but here are further complications.' Counties have been able to live with it as is, but because of cost increases, like the cost of gasoline and oil, the formulas used 10 and 12 years ago just don't keep up with the actual costs."

Local BLM spokesman Jerry Meredith agrees that actual costs may exceed the payments in lieu of taxes. But he also emphasizes that Congress, not the federal land managers, determines the level of funding.

"In today's expensive environment, it's pretty hard to have an adequate amount of funding for any program, public or private," Meredith said.

Prior to 1976, there was no reimbursement to the counties for federal lands not subjected to local taxation.


(Additional information)

How other states compare

States receiving largest payments in lieu of taxes:

California $10,601,732

New Mexico 10,498,820

Utah 9,126,282

Arizona 8,050,056

Montana 7,989,406


States receiving the smallest payments in lieu of taxes:

Rhode Island $0

Delaware 4,627

Connecticut 17,644

Hawaii 36,263

New Jersey 38,009


How much counties get

Payments in lieu of taxes made to Utah counties:

Beaver $229,455 Piute $ 62,290

Box Elder 867,652 Rich 96,120

Cache 179,691 Salt Lake 61,316

Carbon 338,498 San Juan 380,952

Daggett 35,000 Sanpete 384,762

Davis 22,385 Sevier 421,700

Duchesne 389,480 Summit 332,310

Emery 366,892 Tooele 714,361

Garfield 205,000 Uintah 576,727

Grand 306,079 Utah 470,998

Iron 512,645 Wasatch 293,619

Juab 272,320 Washington 828,624

Kane 235,073 Wayne 105,000

Millard 383,734 Weber 43,019

Morgan 10,580