RICHLAND — The federal government is proposing cutting millions of dollars traditionally paid to Tri-Cities area local governments.
In the past U.S. Department of Energy has forked over as much as $9.3 million annually in lieu of local taxes that can’t be collected at the 580-square-mile Hanford nuclear reservation.
The money has gone to agencies and to local government programs in Benton County, with smaller amounts going to Franklin and Grant counties.
The largest amount collected by Benton County goes to the Richland School District, with other school districts also receiving money, and the county retaining some money for roads, capital projects, human services and indigent veterans.
Additional money goes to rural libraries, the Port of Benton and the Prosser Hospital District.
“This goes to kids, hospitals, books and veterans,” Adam Fyall, sustainable development manager for Benton County, has said as Benton County wrangled previously over the amount of money DOE owed.
But the Biden administration’s recent budget proposal to Congress for fiscal 2022 includes no money for the communities that bear the burden of the DOE’s largest environmental cleanup projects in the United States — the Hanford site in Eastern Washington and the Savannah River, S.C., site.
Other cleanup sites across the nation would continue to receive DOE payments in lieu of taxes, or PILT.
“This action does not track with recent commitments we have heard from new DOE leadership about supporting communities,” said the Energy Communities Alliance in a Thursday letter to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm. The alliance includes Hanford Communities, a coalition of Hanford-area local governments.
“We learned about it only after combing through thousands of pages of the budget requests, as there was no DOE headquarters briefing on the budget and no direct outreach to the community leadership on the issues,” the alliance letter said.
No taxes paid on Hanford land
It asked that DOE ensure that future DOE budget requests include funding for PILT payments to all communities eligible to receive them.
It has not received an explanation on why the PILT for Hanford and Savannah River was zeroed out of the proposed budget.
“Let’s not forget that PILT funding is intended to compensate our local jurisdictions for taxes they cannot collect from the Hanford Site, and that PILT is a miniscule fraction of Hanford’s annual budget,” said David Reeploeg, vice president for federal programs for the Tri-City Development Council.
“Even so, that miniscule fraction does a lot of good for schools, hospitals, and governments in the Tri-Cities,” he said.
The PILT payments are equal to only a fraction of what private companies and employees would contribute to local tax revenues for similar land and service use, according to the Energy Communities Alliance.
“A lack of PILT payments results in a lack of ability for communities to replace aging infrastructure or attract the new industry, best available workforce and investment necessary for DOE to sustain weapons and environmental cleanup activities at its sites,” the alliance said in its letter to Granholm.
The Hanford site was used from World War II through the Cold War to produce about two-thirds of the nation’s plutonium for its nuclear weapons program. DOE and its contractors employ about 11,000 workers now to maintain, stabilize and cleanup the contaminated site.
No taxes have been paid on the land that stretches over Benton, Franklin and Grant counties since it was seized by the federal government in 1943, with residents forced to leave.
But starting in 1994, the federal government agreed to make payments in lieu of taxes, starting with $2.5 million for the three counties that year.
Hanford land value increases
As land prices for residential, commercial and agriculture use have increased in the region, the PILT bills to DOE also have increased.
Before land was seized by the federal government, some of it was irrigated for orchards and vineyards. Part of the increase in PILT bills has been driven by the rising value of irrigated land as the Mid-Columbia becomes known for its wine grapes.
Four or five years ago Benton County began to receive payments that were lower than billed or were late being paid, Fyall said. DOE did not have money in budgets set by Congress to pay the bills.
Benton County agreed to work with DOE in the way the land was assessed, including using a five-year average method to make billing more predictable.
For example, the amount billed by Benton County for the current year has dropped to $3.8 million.
“In exchange for that, the obligation back to DOE was to make damn sure they find a way to cover that,” Fyall said.
It expects local Hanford DOE officials to work with DOE Headquarters and the White House Office of Management and Budget to make sure the DOE budget covers PILT payments, he said.
DOE and OMB work on a proposed budget that the administration sends to Congress, which sets the budget.
Staff of Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., were scheduled to meet with DOE officials Friday afternoon to discuss the zeroing out of Hanford PILT payments in the administration’s budget request to Congress, according to the Energy Communities Alliance.
“The fact that the proposed budget would eliminate PILT does raise concerning questions about DOE’s commitment to the community where the Hanford workforce lives,” Reeploeg said.
While this is the first time that TRIDEC officials remember a budget request with no PILT funding for Hanford, DOE has requested deep cutbacks in some recent years.
Then TRIDEC and Hanford Communities had support from Murray; Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., to increase PILT funding.
“I’m confident they will work to do the same this year,” Reeploeg said.