Missoula County supports Tester’s, Daines’ push to reauthorize federal SRS payments

Missoula County is backing a push by Montana’s congressional delegation to extend federal funding to rural counties that supports a range of essential services, including schools, roads and law enforcement.

Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines this week signed a letter to U.S. Senate leaders, urging them to renew what’s known as Secure Rural Schools, and to do so at its fully authorized amount.

While the funding tool rarely gets widespread attention, rural counties like those in western Montana use it to fund a number of services, including the treatment of forests in the ever-expanding urban interface.

“It’s an incredibly important source of revenue for us,” Missoula County Commissioner Cola Rowley told the Missoula Current.

When the national timber industry declined, Congress passed Secure Rural Schools to compensate forested counties for lost revenue.

The November letter, signed by two dozen lawmakers from both parties, said SRS has helped counties fund more than 4,400 schools, conduct road maintenance and search and rescue. Around 775 counties in 40 states rely upon the funding.

“SRS is a powerful tool for helping rural counties adequately fund their schools and keep their roads and communities safe,” Tester said. “Congress must get its act together by the end of the year so folks across rural Montana aren’t left with their hats in their hands.”

The funding hasn’t always been dependable. SRS expired in 2015 and payments to qualified Montana counties fell from $18 million to $2.4 million.

Missoula County alone lost an estimated $400,000 in revenue, forcing commissioners to make what they called “significant reductions in personnel and operating costs.”

Congress restored SRS this spring as part of its $1.3 trillion spending bill, but it only did so for two years. Tester and Daines are urging Congress to continue the program as lawmakers look for a “permanent county payment solution.”

“If SRS isn’t reauthorized, these critical services could experience more than an 80 percent drop in funds as federal payments revert to an older funding formula,” the letter reads.

While the funding helps fund roads and schools, it also enables counties to conduct fuel mitigation in the wildland-urban interface. Losing SRS funding could hinder those efforts.

“I know the Montana Association of Counties has been pretty active in lobbying for this,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “I’m pretty sure our entire congressional delegation is supportive of SRS reauthorization.”