Source: Tri City Herald | Annette Cary | April 9, 2017

Richland High School teacher Nick White answers a question for Kelsey Wallace, left, and Abreese Ungard during a U.S. Government class. The Richland School District was among local government agencies receiving full payment in lieu of taxes from the Department of Energy after DOE initially was short of money.

Richland High School teacher Nick White answers a question for Kelsey Wallace, left, and Abreese Ungard during a U.S. Government class. The Richland School District was among local government agencies receiving full payment in lieu of taxes from the Department of Energy after DOE initially was short of money. Tri-City Herald file

The full $9.5 million billed by local counties to the Department of Energy in 2016 has been paid, but it required Congressional action to get the money into local hands.

The money has been paid to Benton, Franklin and Grant counties and distributed to taxing districts for services that Adam Fyall, the sustainable development manager for Benton County, has summed up as “kids, hospitals, books and veterans.” It also is used for road maintenance.

The three counties that are home to parts of the Hanford nuclear reservation bill DOE for payments in lieu of taxes — the money the counties calculate that taxing districts would receive if about 580 square miles of land were in private hands rather than owned by the federal government.

Last spring DOE notified the counties that it might be able to pay as little as 20 percent of the payment in lieu of taxes, commonly called PILT.

“Ultimately we got it taken care of … thanks to Sen. (Patty) Murray. Her office did the heavy lifting,” Fyall said.

DOE made a request to Congress to move some of its funds into its drained community and regulatory support account, and Murray worked to get the request through the congressional process.

“PILT payments are not only critical to the day-to-day operations in the Tri-Cities, but they also demonstrate the sacrifice the community made in order for the federal government to establish Hanford,” Murray said.

The bulk of the PILT, almost $7.4 million, went to Benton County and taxing districts within the county. It included almost $3.2 million paid directly to the Richland School District, plus $1.5 million divided among several school districts, including the Richland, Kennewick, Paterson, Kiona Benton and Grandview school districts.

The county retained about $861,000, primarily for roads, and rural road districts also received about $1.1 million. The Benton Franklin Health District, an indigent veteran fund, libraries, the Prosser School district, the Port of Benton and the Prosser hospital district also received money.

“The department takes our agreements with the counties seriously,” said Greg Jones, DOE chief financial officer for Hanford.

But getting the federal funds to make PILT payments has been challenging in recent years.

“We are working with the counties to evaluate a scenario that could provide more stable PILT billing in the future,” he said.

$6 million 2012 DOE total PILT bill from Benton, Franklin and Grant counties

$9.5 million 2016 DOE total PILT bill from Benton, Franklin and Grant counties

The change would require a renegotiation of an agreement between DOE and the counties.

In 1996, DOE reached an agreement to make the payments, but 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 their taxing districts.

Some of the land seized by the federal government during World War II to create the nuclear reservation for the production of weapons plutonium was privately owned irrigated farmland. Land from the Vernita Bridge to Richland likely would be used for irrigated vineyards and orchards today if it had not been seized, according to Benton County officials.

Similar farmland is increasing in value and that is reflected in the PILT bills that DOE receives.

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 presidential administration proposes a budget that Congress used as a starting point to appropriate money for Hanford, setting amounts for categories such as regulatory and community support.

For 2016 Hanford initially received just under $20 million for the account, thanks to the Washington congressional delegation, which fought for more money than the approximately $15 million proposed by the Obama administration.

Most of the programs paid for from the account are mandatory. More than half of the account’s money goes to the Washington State Department of Ecology regulatory oversight of Hanford.

DOE also must pay for county emergency preparedness and state Department of Health air and radiological monitoring to ensure there are no harmful releases from Hanford. It also pays for the Hanford Advisory Board. Advisory boards are required under federal law for large Superfund sites like Hanford.

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.

But Murray believes the money is important.

“These investments have a real impact on our kids, our veterans and the entire community,” she said.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews