Hanford tax payments are essential — and a moral obligation | Editorial

The federal government requires average citizens to pay their taxes no matter how tight the budget.

Ironically, that same expectation does not seem to apply when it is the government’s turn to foot the bill — and that is shameful.

At issue is the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, which has benefited the Tri-City area for decades but is now under renewed scrutiny by lawmakers in Washington, D.C.

In 1943, the federal government swooped in and took over acres of private land in Benton, Franklin and Grant counties in order to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons during World War II.

That meant land that could have been used for something other than creating the Hanford site was lost to the community — as was any tax revenue that land might have generated.

A deal was struck in 1996 between the three counties and the Department of Energy to pay the equivalent of the property taxes that would have been paid had the land been in private hands.

But because the federal government can make its own rules, it was able to say in the agreement that the money wasn’t an entitlement, and that any payments would depend on the availability of federal dollars.

Last week the federal Government Accounting Office released a report on PILT money at DOE sites. It was requested by Congress after some members questioned why so much PILT money was going to communities near Hanford.

We would like to remind Congress of its obligations.

Counties are restricted to billing PILT based on the original use of land when the feds took it over. At Hanford, it was acres of farmland.

With all the vineyards that have exploded around the Tri-Cities, the assessments for land suitable for agriculture have soared — as would the property taxes collected had that land not been seized by DOE.

The communities surrounding the Hanford site have paid dearly for being neighbors with the nation’s most toxic nuclear waste facility, and the PILT program is a way to remedy this.

Over the years, our area has come to rely heavily on money from the program, even when the payments fell short of what they should be.

Benton County gets the majority of the PILT money, and the lion’s share ends up going to the Richland School District.

In addition, the Port of Benton, the Prosser Hospital District and the Benton Franklin Health District all benefit from the program. Roads, libraries, other school districts and veteran funds also depend on it.

Government officials should not consider PILT optional. They should see it as an obligation owed to the Tri-City region, and the payments are the cost of doing business at Hanford.