Editorials

Our Voice: DOE needs to fulfill its duties to communities surrounding Hanford

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

The Department of Energy is coming up quite short on funds for its 2016 payments to local governments.

That is not acceptable.

DOE’s conservative estimate is that it will have about 20 percent of the $9.5 million owed to local governments for what is known as payments in lieu of taxes, or PILT.

Three area counties have more than 500 square miles of land within the bounds of the Hanford nuclear reservation. Since the federal government’s takeover of the land in 1943, property taxes have not been paid to the associated counties.

A deal was struck in 1996 between Benton, Franklin and Grant counties and DOE to pay the equivalent of the property taxes due had the land been in private ownership. But because the federal government can make its own rules, it was able to say in that agreement that the money wasn’t an entitlement, and that any payments would depend on the availability of federal dollars.

The counties have used the PILT funding for schools, libraries, capital improvements and road work, among other good works. Nearly $4 million of the payment was distributed to school districts in Benton County in 2015.

The DOE regulatory and community support account dedicated to such payments has just under $20 million in it this year. That includes $11 million due to the state Department of Ecology for its role at Hanford.

With PILT money being one of the only payments not mandatory in the account, it can be at risk when dollars are tight.

The Washington congressional delegation had to fight to get the $20 million in the first place, with the original budget proposed by the Obama administration at $5 million less.

DOE officials have let the counties know to expect much less than the amounts that were invoiced for 2016 payments.

So DOE Hanford folks are developing a “congressional reprogramming request” to transfer $7 million from environmental cleanup projects to the regulatory and community support account. But as the name suggests, that’s not so simple. The request must be approved at DOE in Washington, D.C., and then go to the White House for approval. If it survives that gauntlet, then Congress will make the ultimate decision.

We know the money was never guaranteed, but it sure seemed like the right thing to do after taking land away from its owners for the Hanford project. The counties are due some recourse as well. The money has been put to good use, and the PILT funds were a major accomplishment when they were negotiated nearly 20 years ago.

The federal government needs to fulfill its duties to the communities that have given so much over the years in the Cold War-era effort to protect our nation and the aftermath of those projects.

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