Ohio school systems hope to see funds from Wayne National Forest leases

MARIETTA — Monroe County schools and townships may soon see an influx of royalty payments from below-surface mineral development of the Wayne National Forest thanks to recent and coming leases through the Bureau of Land Management.

Among Washington, Morgan, Monroe and Noble counties, 64,667 acres of land are federally owned as part of the Wayne National Forest, but those lands are exempt from property taxes which can create financial hardships for entities that receive public funds.

As the primary base of school district and township funds, property taxes instead only come from private landowners throughout Ohio’s counties.

But in March the BLM plans to auction off leases to oil and gas companies for approximately 1,186 forest acres in Monroe County.

Through the same process, 719 acres of the forest in Monroe County were leased to oil and gas companies in December for a total sale price of more than $1.7 million.

“The Switzerland of Ohio school district has a ridiculous number of acres of federal forest within its borders,” said Jackie Stewart, state director for Energy In Depth. “Without the property tax on that land, the hit to the schools is heartbreaking. But what’s going to happen now is the schools will receive a huge chunk of both the sale proceeds and portions of the 12.5 percent royalty payments.”

Frontier Local Schools’ Treasurer Lee Howard hopes that similar leases will open in Washington County as well in the coming months so that royalties can bolster education efforts in her district.

“The Wayne does not pay regular property taxes like private landowners,” said Howard. “So we only get a stipend from them from what they choose to provide as payment in lieu of taxes. But if they were to develop horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing connecting private and federal lands in our district, we could benefit not only from royalties but also the value of utility construction.”

For the past six fiscal years the forest’s payment in lieu of taxes has increased to Frontier Local Schools, but not enough, according to Howard. The payment was $115,788 for fiscal year 2016, up from $45,487 in fiscal year 2012.

“The school district would benefit from leasing also from utility personal property taxes on any utility construction like water and power or gas pipelines they would run through the district,” she said. “The value of those would depreciate over time but would still be an added benefit.”

Washington County Auditor Bill McFarland said current payments in lieu of taxes from the forest for Washington County are broken up with 80 percent going to Frontier Local Schools, 12 percent to townships with forest lands in them and the final 8 percent to the county through county commissioners.

“That money though is at the discretion of the BLM through the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000,” he said. “Typically the purpose of those funds is for schools and roads.”

The oil and gas leasing window will begin March 23. Protests may be delivered in hard copy via Postal Service or fax to the Bureau of Land Management Eastern States Office. More information can be found at blm.gov.

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