Officials glad for forest fund restoration

Published 6:00 am Thursday, November 6, 2008

A long-standing source of federal funding utilized by nationalforested counties across the country has been reinstated after ayearlong flirtation with termination.

The Lincoln County Board of Supervisors this week accepted itsallotment from the Secure Rural Schools and Community SelfDetermination Act, an old piece of legislation that reimbursescounties for potential revenue lost on un-developable nationalforest lands.

Legislators around the country have lobbied for SRS’reactivation after it was removed from its host legislation inDecember 2007.

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The program was reauthorized for four more years in Octoberafter being attached to House Resolution 1424, otherwise known asthe more than $700 billion bailout bill. This could be the lastwaltz for SRS, however, as it has been amended to gradually scaledown and possibly end by 2012.

County Administrator David Fields said it remains to be seenexactly how much funding Lincoln County will receive from the newSRS, as some amendments have been made to the program.

In the past, the county has received an average of $106,000annually, with 42.5 percent deposited into the county’s highwayfund and the remaining 42.5 percent being split evenly between theLincoln County and Brookhaven school districts. If the sameallocation is made this year, the county will keep approximately$45,050 and distribute about $22,525 to each school district.

Supervisors allocated the remaining 15 percent – almost $16,000- to the county’s main Title III program, the Lincoln CountyExtension Service. Supervisors made the allocation even thoughtthey were not required to do so under SRS’ new rules.

Fields also said it not yet known when the funds will bedistributed to Lincoln County. Last year’s funds were deposited inMarch.

While county officials were pleased to see SRS available again,perhaps no one in Southwest Mississippi breathed a bigger sigh ofrelief than Franklin County School District Superintendent Dr.Grady Fleming.

Franklin County, which is blanketed with the Homochitto NationalForest, last year received approximately $1.2 million in SRSfunding, meaning that about $600,000 was deposited into Franklin’slone school system.

Fleming said his district had already planned for travelrestrictions, utility reductions and the possibility of teacherattrition in the event that SRS not be reinstated.

“This will get us back on more of a level playing field,” hesaid. “It’s really going to make a difference.”

Fleming is pleased that SRS is back, but the program’s plan toslim down and eventually die is not something he plans to stand byand watch.

“This will give us time to get focused and really plan ahead forfour years down the road so we can fight to have it approved forlonger than that,” he said. “We’re not gonna give up – we’re goingto keep it fresh so Congress understands the importance of it.”

The total amount of funding gained from SRS for Lincoln County’sschool districts and extension service is small compared toFranklin County levels, but all three entities are also accustomedto SRS money and stretch every penny.

Lincoln County Extension Director Rebecca Bates said her agencyuses its 15 percent slice of the SRS pie to fund its manyagricultural workshops and educational programs, such as the WoodMagic Science Fair – an annual forestry program hosted at differentarea schools that saw 1,000 students attend this year.

“It’s the Title III funds that allow us to have this manyeducational activities within the county each year,” Bates said.”Without it, we certainly wouldn’t have as many field days andworkshops. And for the ones we did have, I’d probably have tocharge a fee or find sponsorships.”

Lincoln County School District Superintendent Terry Brister saidhe was “tickled to death” about SRS being reinstated after a longbout of the program’s uncertainty.

“We need it,” he said. “It’s not that much, but with what’scoming now – with the economy the way it is and budget cuts on theway – every dollar helps. And we’re going to stretch every dollarwe have.”

Brister said his district’s portion of the SRS funds would beplaced in the general fund.

Brookhaven School District Superintendent Lea Barrett said herdistrict would use the money specifically for supplemental materialand additional supplies, such as library and laboratory suppliesand supplemental textbooks.

Barrett too said her district could definitely get by withoutSRS funding, but pointed out – as Brister did – that every pennywould be put to good use.

“Without it, we would have to cut back on some of those items,”she said. “Some of those things we just would not have been able tobuy. If the dollar’s not there, the dollar’s not there.”