As if western counties didn’t have enough to worry about given the reduction and future uncertainty of payments under the Secure Rural Schools Act, GAO has just released a report critical of the way that previous payments have been spent.

When Congress authorized the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000 and reauthorized it in 2008, it did three things: It provided money to forested counties to compensate for lost revenues from the counties’ share of reduced federal timber sales; it allowed use of some county money for federal projects (Title II); and it allowed use of some county money for nonfederal projects (Title III).

In a recent report to the Senate Energy Committee, GAO focused on Title III. It said the Forest Service and BLM believe that they have little authority over the counties. Agency officials said that the act does not give them oversight authority, so they do not attempt to determine whether counties are spending funds appropriately and, for the most part, do not provide opinions or advice to counties on how to interpret the act’s provisions. “Some counties appear to comply with the law,” GAO said, but not all. “Other counties, however, reported expenditures that appear inconsistent with the act’s provisions, such as spending on broader emergency preparedness activities including clearing vegetation along evacuation routes, updating 9-1-1 systems, or buying capital equipment.”

The report indicated that some counties believed that such expenditures were appropriate because (a) the language of the act is open to varying interpretations and (b) they received limited or incorrect advice from the Forest Service and BLM. As such, GAO recommended that if and when Congress reauthorizes the Secure Rural Schools program, it should specify what projects counties can spend money on and on what projects they can’t. In the meantime, GAO suggested that the Forest Service and BLM “should issue formal federal regulations or clear guidance specifying types of allowable county uses of Title III funds, to help counties make appropriate decisions regarding these funds.”