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Washington • Rural Utah communities this year will get a share of $36 million from the federal government in an attempt to offset the large swaths of public lands that eat up their tax base.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Thursday that the payments-in-lieu-of-taxes program (PILT), which is doled out by population size and acreage of federal lands, is the largest yet to help smaller, rural communities that abut lands blocked from commercial or residential uses.

While pleased that the federal funds are still flowing, some Utah leaders say they're gearing up for the years to come when that revenue source may dry up.

"We're already starting to prepare for what would be a tough budget situation if that were to happen — restructure our budget and financing to try and weather that if that takes place," said Kane County Commission Chairman Jim Matson, who fears budget cuts in Washington will slash rural aid.

Matson, like fellow rural commissioners, backs a plan by state officials to force the federal government to hand over public lands to state control, allowing them to develop some areas and boost revenue.

"I'm pleased with [PILT funding]," Matson said, "but I'd be happier with the other circumstance."

Asked by The Salt Lake Tribune about sustaining PILT, Salazar said the federal government, including the Interior Department, needs to manage its taxpayer dollars in a "smart way" and that it's important, too, that the nation pare back its debt.

Salazar said President Barack Obama also knows that critical programs need to be maintained.

"We need to make sure that balance, as he often stated, in investing in those things that are important," Salazar said, "And PILT is important."

Congress bumped up the PILT payments during the past five years, though the 2012 payments are the last authorized at the higher level. Salazar argued the program needs to be extended to ensure rural communities aren't left behind.

Obama's budget proposal this year includes a request to fund PILT around the same amount, though Congress has not yet acted on the spending plan for the program.

Salazar, mentioning Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, disagreed with Beehive State officials' argument that the federal government should hand over public lands, noting that the state benefits greatly from the tourism, recreation, and oil and gas industries.

"The fact is that the lands in Utah, whether it's Zion National Park or Arches or all of the oil and natural-gas development or mineral developments that take place, contributes in huge ways to the economy of the state of Utah," Salazar said. "So I think they're just wrongheaded in their criticism."

Bishop, who's working with Western colleagues to sustain PILT, chided Salazar and said that with 65 percent of Utah's land controlled or managed by the federal government, tax revenue is hard to come by.

"This could be solved if the federal government would relinquish control over some of its 660 million acres of land," Bishop said. "Apparently wanting to fund public education and give children greater educational opportunities is 'wrongheaded' as Secretary Salazar put it. This is further evidence of how out of touch both he and President Obama are."

PILT funding by county

Beaver County • $1,024,900

Box Elder County • $2,967,407

Cache County • $625,053

Carbon County • $1,075,469

Daggett County • $122,626

Davis County • $64,002

Duchesne County • $1,778,530

Emery County • $1,226,597

Garfield County • $830,224

Grand County • $1,141,234

Iron County • $3,064,996

Juab County • $1,133,474

Kane County • $1,024,900

Millard County • $1,373,773

Morgan County • $29,534

Piute County • $222,173

Rich County • $382,402

Salt Lake County • $231,449

San Juan County • $1,390,876

Sanpete County • $1,241,577

Sevier County • $1,810,189

Summit County • $1,308,378

Tooele County • $3,260,255

Uintah County • $2,640,013

Utah County • $1,623,187

Wasatch County • $1,089,499

Washington County • $2,778,858

Wayne County • $450,987

Weber County • $126,064

Total • $36,038,626

Source: Interior Department

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