The Letter to the Editor from Don Young dated Jan. 27 highlights the need for better understanding of ongoing efforts by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and the counties — including Yakima County and the Washington State Association of Counties — to fix the way WDFW makes payments to counties in lieu of property taxes.
State agencies are exempt from property taxes. However, in 1965, in recognition of the costs associated with providing county services to WDFW Lands, the Legislature created the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) system, whereby WDFW pays counties according to a formula for eligible lands owned in their county. WDFW is committed to maintaining a balance between the benefits of department land management — enjoyed by all Washingtonians — and the equalization of proportional costs that occur at the county level through equitable PILT reform.
The method of calculating the payment is dictated by the legislature as an option between the open space rate and the greater of the 1984 rate or $0.70 per acre. In 2011, many counties elected the open space option, which resulted in a 45% increase in PILT payments. The legislature responded by freezing WDFW PILT payments at 2011 levels. So, it is correct that between 2012 and 2016, WDFW’s PILT payments to Yakima County remained static at $126,225.
In 2015, the WDFW PILT Coalition formed through a partnership that now includes the Washington State Association of Counties, Yakima, Okanogan and Kittitas counties specifically, The Nature Conservancy, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, Trust for Public Land, Trout Unlimited, the Washington State Association of Land Trusts and WDFW.
The PILT Coalition has worked to raise the profile of this issue and was successful in increasing PILT payments to counties by 47% in 2018 and fully lifting the cap on payments last session. As a result, the 2018 and 2019 payments to Yakima County increased to $186,056 and the 2020 payment is calculated to be $355,820.
Please note that the payments are based on a calculation that relies on the open space rate that is set by the county. Typically, the agriculture tax rate is different than the open space tax rate so there will be a difference in payments related to a specific parcel that previously was designated agricultural and was acquired by WDFW for conservation and recreation access.
There are currently bills — House Bill 2559 and Senate Bill 6365 — moving through the state legislative session that would further improve the WDFW PILT program. These bills are a solid step toward full implementation of reforms recommended by the Department of Revenue.
We appreciate Mr. Young for highlighting this issue and recognize the importance of PILT payments to the economic well-being of counties throughout the state. We are optimistic that current efforts will further bolster WDFW’s mission to ensure your public lands are a place where fish and wildlife thrive in healthy habitats and where people experience and enjoy our state’s natural gifts for generations to come.