DOE short $7M for Mid-Columbia schools, roads, other payments

Troy Molnaa, left, and Zac Thomas, look through filters during a science presentation at Lewis and Clark Elementary School. The Department of Energy may cut its payment in lieu of taxes to the Richland School District by 80 percent. Last year the district received $2.6 million.
Troy Molnaa, left, and Zac Thomas, look through filters during a science presentation at Lewis and Clark Elementary School. The Department of Energy may cut its payment in lieu of taxes to the Richland School District by 80 percent. Last year the district received $2.6 million. Tri-City Herald file

The Department of Energy may be able to pay as little as 20 percent of the $9.5 million it is being billed this year for payments in lieu of taxes that go to local governments.

To have the money available for the full payment will take action by Congress, which is not assured.

“This goes to kids, hospitals, books and veterans,” said Adam Fyall, sustainable development manager for Benton County.

Benton, Franklin and Grant counties — the three counties with land that is part of the Hanford nuclear reservation — receive the money, commonly called PILT. They divvy it up to school, library and other taxing districts and also retain some money for road and other work.

Taxes have not been paid on more than 500 square miles of Hanford land since the federal government took it over in 1943, producing plutonium for nuclear weapons during World War II and through the Cold War.

In 1996, DOE reached an agreement with the three counties to make good on what they would otherwise have received in taxes if the land was in private ownership. However, the agreement said the money was not an entitlement, and payments would depend on whether federal money is available.

DOE resources have been stretched thin in recent years to make the payment, with the department spending down carryover money while it lasted to provide the money to the counties and other taxing districts.

$6 million DOE PILT bill from counties in 2012

$9.5 million DOE PILT bill from counties in 2016

Some of the land seized by the federal government in 1943, with residents forced to leave, was irrigated farmland. If it were not in the possession of the federal government, land from the Vernita Bridge to Richland likely would be used for irrigated vineyards and orchards today, Fyall said.

Such property is increasing in value, which is reflected in the PILT bill to DOE.

DOE’s bill, based on assessed value if the land were in private hands, has increased from $6 million in 2012 to $9.5 million in 2016.

But the Hanford account dedicated to paying PILT and other regulatory and community support costs has remained relatively flat. The administration proposes a budget that Congress uses as a starting point to appropriate money for Hanford, setting firm amounts for categories such as regulatory and community support.

This year Hanford has just under $20 million in the account, thanks to the Washington congressional delegation, which fought for more money than the approximately $15 million proposed by the Obama administration.

The majority of programs that DOE pays for from its regulatory and community support program budget are mandatory.

It includes $11 million, based on 2015 numbers, for the Washington State Department of Ecology regulatory oversight of Hanford. In addition, DOE must pay for county emergency preparedness because of the risks posed by Hanford and for the state Department of Health to perform air and radiological monitoring to ensure there are no harmful releases.

Because Oregon depends on the Columbia River, which a successful Hanford environmental cleanup would protect, it receives money each year estimated at $600,000 to $700,000 for its ongoing involvement with cleanup.

We need to figure out how we all can help DOE meet its obligations.

Adam Fyall, Benton County sustainable development manager

The regulatory and community support budget also pays for the Hanford Advisory Board. Federal law requires the advisory board for large Superfund sites like Hanford, but does not set a required funding level. Its funding has dropped substantially through the years to about $450,000 last year.

PILT funding is left as one of the few items in the account that is not mandatory, leaving it vulnerable if there is a shortfall.

DOE Hanford officials are developing a Congressional reprogramming request to move $7 million from Hanford environmental cleanup projects to the regulatory and community support budget, which would allow it to pay the full PILT bill.

The request must be approved by DOE headquarters in Washington, D.C., then sent to the Office of Management and Budget at the White House for approval.

If it passes both hurdles, it will be sent to Congress to see if the Washington delegation can get support for it. At the same time Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is fighting to boost the budget to allow cleanup of the high-hazard 618-10 Burial Ground and the highly radioactive spill under the 324 Building — both near Richland and the Columbia River — plus retain a proposed increase for the Hanford tank farms.

DOE has notified Benton County, the only county that sends PILT bills every six months to DOE, that it can only pay $736,500 of the $3.7 million billed this spring. Total payment for the year would be about less than $1.5 million of an anticipated nearly $7.4 million.

“We need to figure out how we all can help DOE meet its obligations,” Fyall said, after a meeting with officials from the three counties and DOE last week.

$1.5 million amount DOE may pay of nearly $7.4 million billed by Benton County

$184,900 amount DOE may pay of $924,498 billed by Franklin County

$236,352 amount DOE may pay of the nearly $1.2 million billed by Grant County

County officials may need to talk with DOE officials at all levels, work with the Congressional delegation and join forces with local governments at other DOE sites that rely on similar PILT payments and could also see shortfalls, he said.

The largest share of the Benton County PILT payment last year, about $2.6 million, went to the Richland School District. A separate fund called the state school fund split $1.3 million among multiple school districts in Benton County, including the Kennewick School District. The Prosser School District received a separate payment of $92,000, and $36,000 went to the Kiona-Benton School District.

Benton County retained $1.6 million of the money, spending it on roads, capital projects, human services and indigent veterans. Additional money totaling more than $440,000 went to rural libraries, the Port of Benton and the Prosser Hospital District, which received a small portion.

Franklin and Grant counties receive smaller amounts. DOE has told Franklin County that it may have only $184,900 of the $924,498 due in October. Grant County has been told it may receive just $236,352 of the nearly $1.2 million due in October.

Those counties use the money for a mix of uses, similar to Benton County.

DOE’s estimate that it could pay 20 percent of PILT payments without Congressional reprogramming is conservative. The percentage could increase some — possibly to about 30 percent — as the year progresses and it knows more of the actual costs it must pay this year for regulatory and community support programs.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews