By Stephen Smoot
A threatened federal source of funding for schools in Pendleton County and other systems across the nation received a reprieve. The bill S. 2851, currently in committee chairman Joe Manchin’s Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was “marked up” for reauthorization. The committee also favorably reported the bill.
Secure Rural Schools funding serves as federal government compensation for the inability for counties to earn tax income off of timbering forest lands that are part of national forests.
Funds pay for schools, fire prevention efforts, and other public safety programs. The program has existed since 2000, but the forest service’s efforts to reimburse counties with national forest lands goes back to 1908.
As J. P. Mowery, treasurer for Pendleton County Schools, stated, “We understand that Congress faces difficult decisions with regard to reining in the federal debt and deficit.” He went on to say, “However, the forest lands were formed from counties in the early 20th century, removing that land from local control and taxing authority.”
Representing Pendleton County Schools, Mowery and Nicole Hevener both traveled to Washington, DC, earlier this year to discuss the need for this program with West Virginia’s congressional delegation and others.
Money distributed is based on a formula that takes into consideration timber harvest levels, economic activity in the area, and other variables. More than 700 local jurisdictions across the 50 states and Puerto Rico receive assistance.
Mowery explained that “funding from the Secure Rural Schools Act is critical to our needs to cover basic operating expense such as utilities, insurance, maintenance, etc.” He has praised Pocahontas County for working hard to keep the issue at the forefront of consideration for Senators Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito.
Mowery went on to add that “at first glance, the SRS funds of approximately $90,000 per year for Pendleton County are not huge in an $18 million dollar overall budget, but the fact that they can be spent on discretionary needs such as maintenance, increased utility costs in a cold winter, or be used without restriction make the funds vitally important.”
Last April, 14 counties in West Virginia received nearly $1.4 million in total funding from the SRS program. Manchin said at the time, “That will help ensure that West Virginia’s rural counties and school districts can continue to provide essential services to students and communities on forest service lands.”
Capito said of the program, “Many rural communities whose tax base is limited due to presence of federal land in West Virginia rely on the SRS program to ensure their education system and essential services receive the necessary funding.”
Current legislation would reauthorize the SRS funding through 2026.