oversight

Payment to Counties: More Clarity Could Help Ensure County Expenditures Are Consistent with Key Parts of the Secure Rural Schools Act

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 2012-07-16.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

             United States Government Accountability Office

GAO          Report to the Committee on Energy and
             Natural Resources, U.S. Senate



July 2012
             PAYMENTS TO
             COUNTIES
             More Clarity Could
             Help Ensure County
             Expenditures Are
             Consistent with Key
             Parts of the Secure
             Rural Schools Act




GAO-12-775
                                             July 2012

                                             PAYMENTS TO COUNTIES
                                             More Clarity Could Help Ensure County
                                             Expenditures Are Consistent with Key Parts of the
                                             Secure Rural Schools Act
Highlights of GAO-12-775, a report to the
Committee on Energy and Natural Resources,
U.S. Senate




Why GAO Did This Study                       What GAO Found
Under the Secure Rural Schools Act,          Both the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have
counties with federal lands may elect        provided limited oversight of county spending under Title III of the Secure Rural
to receive payments to help stabilize        Schools Act. Neither agency has issued regulations, and guidance available from
revenues lost because of declining           these agencies is limited and sometimes unclear about which types of
federal timber sales. Under Title III of     expenditures are allowable under the act. In addition, their guidance appears to
the act, counties are authorized to use      be inconsistent with certain provisions of the act. For example, the Forest Service
these funds for certain projects related     website contains a brief overview document of Title III, which generally echoes
to wildland fire and emergency               wording in the act, and a “frequently asked questions” document. These
services on federal lands. Counties
                                             documents, however, do little to clarify language in the act, neither defining terms
received $108 million for Title III
                                             from the act, such as “emergency services,” nor specifying which activities the
projects for fiscal years 2008 through
2011. The act provides oversight roles
                                             terms cover. Moreover, the agencies do not review the annual certifications of
for the Forest Service and BLM,              expenditures that counties are required to complete to determine whether
requiring them to review counties’           counties spent funds appropriately and do not have assurance that they have an
certification of their Title III             accurate accounting of the amounts of Title III funding spent and unspent by the
expenditures as they determine to be         counties. According to agency officials, the steps they have taken to provide
appropriate and to issue regulations to      guidance have been limited because they believe they do not have authority
carry out the purposes of the act. GAO       under the act to do more to oversee county spending. They also stated that
examined the (1) actions the agencies        Title III’s provisions are clear and do not need further clarification through
have taken to oversee county spending        regulations. As a result, they generally have not provided advice to counties on
under Title III, (2) consistency of          how to interpret the act and have not taken steps to assess whether counties are
selected counties’ expenditures with         spending funds appropriately.
the act, and (3) extent to which
counties have followed Title III’s           The counties GAO reviewed reported using Title III funds for projects that were
administrative requirements. GAO             generally aligned with the three broad purposes of Title III—wildland fire
reviewed agency and county                   preparedness, emergency services on federal land, and community wildfire
documents and interviewed officials          protection planning—but GAO identified various expenditures by some counties
from the Forest Service, BLM, and 42         that may not be consistent with specific requirements of the act. For example,
selected counties.                           consistent with the act, some counties used funds to provide homeowners with
                                             education on or assistance with home siting, home construction, or home
What GAO Recommends                          landscaping to help protect people and property from wildland fires. Other
If Congress chooses to extend Title III      counties, however, reported expenditures that appear inconsistent with the act’s
beyond 2012, it should consider              provisions, such as spending on broader emergency preparedness activities
making explicit which types of               including clearing vegetation along evacuation routes, updating 9-1-1 systems, or
expenditures are and are not                 buying capital equipment. Counties may have considered such expenditures
allowable. GAO also recommends that          appropriate because the language of the act is open to varying interpretations
the agencies issue regulations or clear      and because of the limited and sometimes contradictory guidance and advice
guidance specifying the types of             available to the counties from the agencies and other sources.
allowable county uses of Title III funds.
In commenting on a draft of this report,     Counties also did not consistently follow Title III’s administrative requirements,
the Forest Service and Interior              which include annual certification of expenditures, 45-day notification periods to
generally agreed with GAO’s findings         the public and others before spending funds, and deadlines for project initiation
and recommendation.                          and funding obligation. GAO found that some counties closely followed these
                                             requirements, whereas others did not. For example, some counties certified their
                                             Title III expenditures on time and in accordance with agency instructions, but
                                             some counties did not submit a certification for certain years when they spent
                                             funds, other counties submitted their certifications late, and still others did not
View GAO-12-775. For more information,
contact Anu Mittal at (202) 512-3841 or      consistently follow notification and project initiation requirements.
mittala@gao.gov.

                                                                                      United States Government Accountability Office
Contents


Letter                                                                                     1
               Background                                                                  4
               Federal Agencies Have Provided Limited Oversight of County
                 Spending under Title III                                                 8
               Expenditures by Some Counties May Be Inconsistent with the Act            12
               Counties Have Followed Title III’s Administrative Requirements
                 Inconsistently                                                          23
               Conclusions                                                               28
               Matter for Congressional Consideration                                    29
               Recommendation for Executive Action                                       29
               Agency Comments and Our Evaluation                                        29

Appendix I     Objectives, Scope, and Methodology                                        31



Appendix II    Comments from the Department of Agriculture, Forest Service               36



Appendix III   Comments from the Department of the Interior                              37



Appendix IV    GAO Contact and Staff Acknowledgments                                     39



Tables
               Table 1: Counties Contacted During GAO Review                             33


Figures
               Figure 1: Mobile Firewise Trailer Used to Haul Displays to Educate
                        Residents on Firewise Principles                                 14
               Figure 2: A Private Home in Montana Before and After Wildland
                        Fire Mitigation Work Was Completed Using Title III Funds         16




               Page i                                     GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
Abbreviations

BLM               Bureau of Land Management




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Page ii                                              GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
United States Government Accountability Office
Washington, DC 20548




                                   July 16, 2012

                                   The Honorable Jeff Bingaman
                                   Chairman
                                   The Honorable Lisa Murkowski
                                   Ranking Member
                                   Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
                                   United States Senate

                                   Counties containing federal lands have historically received a percentage
                                   of the revenues generated by the sale or use of natural resources on
                                   these lands. A steep decline in federal timber sales during the 1990s,
                                   however, significantly decreased revenues from national forests managed
                                   by the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service and from some public
                                   lands managed by the Department of the Interior’s (Interior) Bureau of
                                   Land Management (BLM). The Secure Rural Schools and Community
                                   Self-Determination Act of 2000, 1 reauthorized in 2008, 2 was enacted in
                                   part to address this decline by stabilizing payments to counties dependent
                                   on revenues from federal timber sales. The act covers all National Forest
                                   lands, as well as certain BLM lands in western Oregon. 3

                                   Under the Secure Rural Schools Act, each county may continue to
                                   receive a portion of the revenues generated from the sale or use of
                                   resources from federal lands or can choose instead to receive annual
                                   payments based in part on historical revenue payments to the county.
                                   These payments were to decline each year, and states and counties




                                   1
                                     Pub. L. No. 106-393 (2000). This act covered the period from fiscal year 2001 through
                                   fiscal year 2006. Pub. L. No. 110-28, Title V, § 5401 (c) (2007) reauthorized the act for
                                   fiscal year 2007. In this report, we refer to the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-
                                   Determination Act of 2000 as the Secure Rural Schools Act.
                                   2
                                    Pub. L. No. 110-343, Div. C, Title VI, § 601 (2008) reauthorized the act for the period
                                   from fiscal year 2008 though fiscal year 2011. Pub. L. No. 112-141, Div. F, Title I, §
                                   100101 (2012) reauthorized the act through fiscal year 2012.
                                   3
                                    Most of these BLM lands were originally granted to the Oregon and California Railroad
                                   Company and later returned to the federal government; they are referred to as O&C lands.




                                   Page 1                                                GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
received the most recent payment authorized by the act (for fiscal year
2011) in early 2012. 4

The Secure Rural Schools Act, as reauthorized, comprises three principal
titles. Under Title I, counties are to use the majority of payments they
receive for the same purposes for which they used federal receipts, in
most cases for the benefit of roads and schools. 5 Under Title II, counties
may reserve a portion of the payments to fund certain land management
projects that benefit federal lands. Title III, which is the focus of our
report, authorizes the use of a portion of the payments for certain
purposes related to wildland fire and emergency services on federal
lands. 6 These authorized uses include carrying out certain activities to
increase the protection of people and property from wildland fires,
reimbursing the county for search and rescue and other emergency
services performed on federal land, and developing community wildfire
protection plans to help protect homes and neighborhoods. Counties
must also follow certain administrative requirements under Title III,
including publishing public notices of proposed uses for the payments and
submitting annual certifications of Title III expenditures to either the
Forest Service or BLM, as appropriate. For fiscal years 2008 through
2011, 358 counties received a total of $108 million for Title III projects,
and individual counties received from about $3,600 to over $2 million in a
single fiscal year for such projects. 7

The Forest Service and BLM are responsible for carrying out certain parts
of the Secure Rural Schools Act. Both agencies calculate the amounts
that counties are to receive each year, and both agencies are required by
the act to review the counties’ certification of Title III expenditures as the


4
 Payments from the Forest Service go to the states, which then allocate payments to the
counties, while payments from BLM go directly to the counties.
5
 For the western Oregon counties containing BLM lands, Title I payments go into each
county’s general fund to be used as the county determines.
6
 Counties receiving $100,000 or less in payments may allocate all of their payments to
uses authorized under Title I. Counties receiving more than $100,000 must allocate from
15 to 20 percent of their payments to Title II and Title III projects or give the funds back to
the federal government. Counties choose how to divide this percentage among Title II and
Title III, although counties receiving $350,000 or more in payments may allocate no more
than 7 percent of the payments to Title III projects.
7
 Payments under all three titles of the act totaled over $2 billion for fiscal years 2008
through 2011.




Page 2                                                  GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
agencies determine to be appropriate. The act also requires the agencies
to issue regulations to implement the act, although it does not describe
what the regulations are to address or establish a deadline for issuing
them.

You asked us to report on federal oversight and counties’ use of Title III
funds. This report examines for fiscal years 2008 through 2011 (1) actions
the Forest Service and BLM have taken to oversee county spending
under Title III, (2) consistency of selected counties’ expenditures with the
purposes of the act, and (3) the extent to which these counties followed
Title III’s administrative requirements.

To conduct this work, we reviewed relevant laws and agency documents,
including the Secure Rural Schools Act, as reauthorized, and Forest
Service guidance made available to counties. We also interviewed Forest
Service and BLM officials about their oversight activities and obtained in
writing Agriculture’s and Interior’s legal interpretations of relevant portions
of the act. We reviewed the forms indicating counties’ election to allocate
funds for Title III and the forms counties submitted to the federal agencies
certifying that the funds expended in the previous year were used for
authorized purposes. To obtain information about the projects and
activities on which counties spent Title III funds, and their administrative
practices related to Title III, we interviewed, in person or by telephone,
officials from 42 selected counties of the 358 counties receiving Title III
funds since the act was reauthorized in 2008. These 42 counties
comprise a nonprobability sample of counties selected for variation in
both the amounts of Title III funds received and in geographic location.
We collected and reviewed documentation from these counties, including
public notices related to Title III and detailed expenditure information. We
did not, however, perform a financial audit of counties’ expenditures.
Because the 42 counties we selected are a nonprobability sample, the
information we obtained from these counties cannot be generalized
beyond these counties; however, the information provided us with an
understanding of how the selected counties spent Title III funds and the
actions taken to follow Title III’s administrative requirements. 8 We also



8
 In addition to these 42 counties that had spent Title III funds, we interviewed officials from
three selected counties that had not yet spent any Title III funds to discuss their reasons
for not spending the funds and their plans for spending or returning remaining funds.
These counties were likewise selected for variation in Title III funds received and
geographic location.




Page 3                                                 GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
             interviewed representatives from several nongovernmental organizations,
             including the National Association of Counties, National Forest Counties
             and Schools Coalition, Western Governors’ Association, Headwaters
             Economics, Association of O&C Counties, 9 and National Fire Protection
             Association. Appendix I describes our objectives, scope, and
             methodology in more detail.

             We conducted this performance audit from August 2011 to July 2012 in
             accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards.
             Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain
             sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our
             findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. We believe that
             the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and
             conclusions based on our audit objectives.


             The Secure Rural Schools Act was enacted to help address fiscal
Background   difficulties confronting rural counties having substantial federal lands and
             a history of federal timber harvesting. In the years leading up to passage
             of the original act in 2000, debate focused on how to finance payments to
             these timber-dependent counties. Some interested parties, including
             county representatives, argued that the Forest Service and BLM should
             finance any shortfall in timber revenues from the agencies’ own
             appropriations and timber receipts, thus leading the agencies to either
             expand timber harvesting on federal lands or reduce their nontimber
             programs, while others argued that compensation for the shortfall should
             come from the U.S. Treasury and be completely decoupled from federal
             timber harvests. Proponents of continued federal timber harvests argued
             against decoupled payments, maintaining that such an approach would
             hurt local timber-related businesses.

             The Senate committee version of what would become the 2000 act was a
             compromise between these two views, providing in Title I for decoupled
             payments to counties while in Title II reserving funds for certain county-
             recommended timber harvesting projects and other activities on federal
             lands, including search-and-rescue efforts. The administration opposed
             tying funding to projects on federal lands and, late in the legislative


             9
              The Association of O&C Counties represents the 18 western Oregon counties within
             which lie the Oregon and California Revested Grantlands, which are now managed by
             BLM. These are the BLM lands covered by the act.




             Page 4                                            GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
process, the bill was amended to allow counties to opt out of Title II,
instead using funds for projects related to but not occurring on federal
lands. This provision became Title III of the act. Because Title III was
added late, little legislative history is associated with it that the agencies
or courts can use to interpret its meaning.

The original act of 2000 established six categories of authorized uses for
Title III funds:

•   Search and rescue and emergency services. A county was allowed to
    use funds to reimburse all documented costs incurred and paid for by
    a county or county sheriff’s department for search and rescue and
    other emergency services, including firefighting, performed on federal
    lands.
•   Community service work camps. A county was allowed to use funds
    to reimburse all or part of the costs it incurred to pay the salaries and
    benefits of county employees who supervise adults or juveniles
    performing mandatory community services on federal lands.
•   Easement purchases. A county was allowed to use funds to acquire
    conservation easements and easements from private or other
    noncounty landowners, on a willing-seller basis, to provide
    nonmotorized access to public lands for hunting, fishing, and other
    recreational purposes.
•   Forest-related educational opportunities. A county was allowed to use
    funds to establish and conduct forest-related after-school programs.
•   Fire prevention and county planning. A county was allowed to use
    funds for (1) efforts to educate homeowners in fire-sensitive
    ecosystems about techniques in home siting, home construction, and
    home landscaping that can increase protection of people and property
    from wildfires and (2) planning efforts to reduce or mitigate the impact
    of development on adjacent federal lands and to increase the
    protection of people and property from wildfires.
•   Community forestry. A county was allowed to use funds to assist in
    obtaining competitive Forest Service grants for improving forests in
    urban settings.

The 2008 act significantly narrowed the counties’ authorized uses for
Title III funds. The act did not include the previous provisions authorizing
community service work camps, funding to acquire easements, forest-
related after-school programs, and community forestry grant assistance. It
continued to allow counties to obtain reimbursements for search and
rescue and other emergency services, including firefighting, performed on




Page 5                                         GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
federal land, and it retained fire prevention and county planning as
allowable uses of funds but further defined them, as follows: 10

•    Firewise. A county may use funds to carry out activities under the
     Firewise Communities program to provide to homeowners in fire-
     sensitive ecosystems education on, and assistance with
     implementing, techniques in home siting, home construction, and
     home landscaping that can increase the protection of people and
     property from wildfires.
•    Search and rescue and other emergency services. A county may use
     funds to reimburse the participating county for search and rescue and
     other emergency services, including firefighting, that are performed on
     federal land and paid for by the participating county.
•    Community wildfire protection plans. A county may use funds to
     develop community wildfire protection plans in coordination with the
     appropriate departmental Secretary concerned.

The Firewise Communities program is a nonregulatory program
administered by the National Fire Protection Association and sponsored
by the Forest Service, Interior, and state forestry organizations. 11 It is
designed to involve homeowners, community leaders, planners,
developers, and others in efforts to protect people, property, and natural
resources from the risk of wildland fire. Activities under the program
include assisting individuals and residential communities with techniques
to help protect homes from ignition due to wildland fire and to improve
emergency preparedness in the event of a wildland fire. Communities that
conduct certain steps can become recognized Firewise Communities
sites. Community wildfire protection plans identify and set priorities for



10
   A sponsor of the Senate version of the bill that ultimately became the 2008 act noted
that “county funding under Title III has been restricted and focused on programs that
indirectly benefit public land management. In addition, provisions have been added to Title
III to encourage compliance with its terms and greater awareness of the counties’ efforts
by federal land managers.” 153 Cong. Rec. S3992 (Mar. 28, 2007) (statement of Senator
Bingaman). One independent report had suggested that some counties may not have
been spending Title III funds appropriately: Jonathan Kusel et al., Assessment of the
Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, Public Law 106-393
(Taylorsville, Calif.: Sierra Institute for Community and Environment, March 2006).
11
  The mission of the National Fire Protection Association, an international nonprofit
established in 1896, is to reduce the worldwide burden of fire and other hazards on the
quality of life by providing and advocating consensus codes and standards, research,
training, and education.




Page 6                                               GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
treatments to reduce flammable vegetation, which can fuel wildland fires,
and recommends the types and methods of treatment on federal and
nonfederal land that will protect at-risk communities and essential
infrastructure; community plans also recommend measures to protect
structures throughout the at-risk community from ignition. A community
plan may cover one or more communities, and some cover entire
counties.

In implementing Title III projects, counties must follow certain
administrative requirements in the act. Specifically, each county must
“publish . . . a proposal that describes the proposed use of county funds”
in local newspapers or other publications and submit the proposal to any
resource advisory committee, which is established for the county primarily
under Title II of the act and is to contain 15 members representing diverse
local interests. 12 The county must then allow a 45-day comment period
before using the funds. Counties do not have to notify or gain approval
from the federal government regarding their plans. Counties that have
spent Title III funds, however, must submit an annual certification to the
Forest Service or BLM, as appropriate, stating that any Title III funds
spent in the previous year went toward authorized uses. The 2008 act in
effect during our review provided that the authority for counties to initiate
Title III projects expired September 30, 2011, and the act stated that any
Title III funds not obligated by counties as of September 30, 2012 were to
be returned to the U.S. Treasury. 13

The 358 counties that have received Title III payments since fiscal year
2008 are located throughout the United States—in 36 states—but the
payments were not evenly distributed geographically, in part because the
amounts of federal land and historic timber receipts (two factors for
calculating payments under the act) vary widely by county. About
44 percent of total Title III payments for fiscal years 2008 through 2011
went to counties in Oregon, with another 11 percent distributed to
counties in northern California. The counties that have received Title III
payments are diverse, with some located in rural areas with populations



12
  For more information on these committees and Title II in general, see GAO, Update on
the Status of the Merchantable Timber Contracting Pilot Program, GAO-10-379R
(Washington, D.C.: Mar. 4, 2010).
13
  In July 2012, as we completed our review, Pub. L. No. 112-141, Div. F, Title I, § 100101
extended each of these dates by 1 year.




Page 7                                               GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
                       of less than 100,000 and others near major urban areas, such as
                       Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington.


                       Both the Forest Service and BLM took few actions to oversee county
Federal Agencies       spending under Title III of the Secure Rural Schools Act. Neither agency
Have Provided          has issued regulations under the act, and the guidance that has been
                       issued is limited and sometimes unclear; further, in some areas, the
Limited Oversight of   guidance appears inconsistent with certain provisions of the act. The
County Spending        agencies also have not reviewed the annual certifications provided by
under Title III        counties to determine whether counties spent funds appropriately, and
                       they do not have assurance that they have an accurate accounting of the
                       amounts of Title III funding spent and unspent by the counties. According
                       to agency officials, the steps agencies have taken to provide guidance
                       have been limited because they believe they do not have authority under
                       the act to do more to oversee county spending.

                       To provide guidance, the Forest Service developed and posted on its
                       website a brief overview of Title III, which generally echoes wording in the
                       act, and a “frequently asked questions” document responding to
                       questions on authorized uses of Title III funds. Agency officials told us
                       they believe the frequently asked questions document provides sufficient
                       clarity for counties to use when considering how to spend Title III
                       funds. However, officials from several counties we contacted told us they
                       found these documents to be of little help, and our review of these
                       documents found that they do not clearly specify which types of
                       expenditures are allowed under the act and which are not. For example,
                       the act authorizes counties to use Title III funds for “search and rescue
                       and other emergency services, including firefighting, that are performed
                       on federal land” but does not define the types of activities covered by this
                       phrase. Neither of the Forest Service documents defines such activities.
                       In addition, in the frequently asked questions document, the Forest
                       Service lists eight specific uses of Title III funds and asks “Are Title III
                       funds authorized for the following uses?” These uses include purchase of
                       capital equipment, capital improvements, purchase of land, and training
                       for emergency response. Instead of answering the question directly, the
                       documents state that, for certain uses, such as construction of facilities,
                       purchase of real property, and purchase of vehicles and other capital
                       equipment, the act does not explicitly authorize these uses. It then further
                       states that reimbursement for certain uses—such as the purchase of
                       replacement equipment damaged or destroyed during an emergency
                       response or maintenance of vehicles and equipment in proportion to their
                       actual use for emergency services performed on federal land—may be


                       Page 8                                       GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
allowable. We believe that such statements are confusing and unclear.
The document also directs the counties to consult their own legal counsel
regarding the authorized uses of Title III funds.

Our review showed that, in addition to being unclear, the Forest Service’s
frequently asked questions document appeared inconsistent with certain
provisions of the act. For example, regarding the Firewise Communities
program, the act states that Title III funds may be used for those Firewise
activities involving educating homeowners about, and assisting them with,
techniques in home siting, construction, and landscaping to help protect
people and properties from wildfires. The frequently asked questions, as
well as the overview document provided by the Forest Service, define
Firewise Communities as an approach that, among other things,
“emphasizes community responsibility for planning in the design of a safe
community as well as effective emergency response.” These documents
do not emphasize that counties’ Firewise activities with Title III funds must
be limited to providing fire-related education or assistance to
homeowners. Moreover, the frequently asked questions document states
that developing emergency 9-1-1 systems under Firewise may also be an
authorized use of Title III funds, which is not an activity clearly authorized
under the act. We are concerned that a Firewise definition that includes
emergency response and the suggestion that developing 9-1-1 systems
may be an authorized activity under the act could lead some counties to
interpret the act as allowing expenditures that improve the county’s
emergency response—a use not clearly authorized under the act.
Officials in one county specifically directed us to the definition of the
Firewise approach provided in the Forest Service’s overview document in
explaining why they spent most of their Title III funds on activities related
to effective emergency response.

The Forest Service and BLM also jointly developed a process to assist
counties in certifying that the county’s Title III funds spent in the previous
year went toward authorized uses, but the agencies do not review county
Title III project expenditures to determine whether the funds have been
used on county projects that are allowable. To implement this process,
the Forest Service and BLM developed instructions that counties are to
follow to certify their Title III expenditures, including requirements and
certification procedures associated with the act and addresses for
submitting the paperwork. The agencies also developed an optional form
that counties may use for certification. These instructions and form are
posted on the Forest Service’s website and, in 2010, the Forest Service
also mailed a copy of the instructions and form to the counties. Once
counties submit their certifications, officials from both agencies told us


Page 9                                        GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
they review the information contained on the forms. However, the limited
information collected through the forms—typically the amount spent in
each of the three allowable Title III spending categories, without further
details regarding actual activities—does not allow either agency to
determine whether counties spent funds appropriately, and senior officials
at both agencies told us that they do not take additional steps to conduct
this type of oversight. Some counties, particularly those in Oregon,
provided the agencies with information describing their Title III projects
beyond what was required in the act, but even so, agency officials told us
that neither agency has reviewed this information to determine whether
those Title III projects were allowable under the act.

Counties are required to submit certifications only for the years they have
spent funds, and neither the Forest Service nor BLM has a process to
contact counties to determine whether the counties spent funds but did
not submit a certification. According to officials from some of the counties
that we contacted, they did not submit certifications even when their
counties had Title III expenditures. Of the $108 million in Title III
payments provided to 358 counties for fiscal years 2008 through 2011,
the counties certified having spent about $46 million—or less than half the
total amount—by the end of calendar year 2011. However, because the
agencies do not have a process to ensure an accurate accounting of the
amounts of Title III funds spent and unspent, it is unclear whether this
amount is accurate, and it will be difficult to ensure that counties return to
the U.S. Treasury any funds that remain unobligated upon the act’s
expiration. In August 2011, the Forest Service requested legal advice
from the Department of Agriculture’s Office of General Counsel on its role
in a county’s return of unobligated Title III funds. In a September 2011
memorandum, the Office of General Counsel suggested to the Forest
Service that it revise the instructions to counties for the certification due in
February 2013, to require counties to indicate the amount of any Title III
funds unobligated as of September 30, 2012. In January 2012, the Forest
Service posted instructions on its website for counties on how to return
unobligated funds, directing counties to self-report the amount of unspent
Title III funds and request a bill for collection from the Forest Service. The
agency official in charge of the Secure Rural Schools program told us that
the agency plans to revise the certification process accordingly.

Agency officials told us they believe 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.
The Forest Service official in charge of the program told us that when


Page 10                                        GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
counties ask him for advice, he is willing to discuss proposed uses of
Title III funds but ultimately can do little more than point them to the act
and the frequently asked questions guidance and advise them to consult
their legal counsels. Officials with both agencies told us they do not have
the authority to approve the counties’ projects or tell them how to spend
the funds. The act, however, states that the agency “concerned shall
review the certifications submitted . . . as [it] determines to be
appropriate” and also that the agencies “shall issue regulations to carry
out the purposes of this Act” 14—language that we believe specifically
authorizes oversight. As part of this authority, we believe the agencies
would, for example, be allowed to issue regulations or guidance clarifying
types of authorized expenditures, which could also facilitate the review of
certifications by establishing criteria for allowable uses of Title III funds. In
their legal views provided to us, the Department of Agriculture stated that
the act was highly prescriptive and it was unclear what utility, if any,
would be achieved through the issuance of regulations, and Interior
stated that it believed Title III’s provisions are clear and do not need
further clarification in regulations 15—although, as noted earlier, the Forest
Service chose to issue guidance in the form of frequently asked
questions, suggesting the agency believed some clarification was
needed.

That the agencies have not developed clear guidance or regulations is
particularly concerning because the act itself does not define key terms.
For example, as noted previously, the act authorizes counties to use
Title III funds for “emergency services” but does not specify the types of
activities covered by this term. 16 Similarly, while the act authorizes
counties to use Title III funds to carry out activities “under the Firewise
Communities program,” it does not specify what activities qualify as part
of the program—for example, whether a community must be a recognized




14
  The act does not specify what matters the regulations are to address or contain a
deadline for their issuance.
15
  In its legal views, Interior further stated that it considers funds distributed under the act
to be county funds and that therefore “it appears that the Department is limited in its
authority to develop a regulatory structure to enforce the proper expenditure of the funds.”
16
  The legislative history of Title III contains almost no information that clarifies the phrase
“emergency services.”




Page 11                                                 GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
                       “Firewise Community” for expenditures to qualify. 17 Because the language
                       of the law leaves certain provisions open to varying interpretations, and
                       available guidance from the agencies has done little to clarify this
                       language, counties have generally been left to make their own
                       interpretations about which types of expenditures are allowable under
                       Title III and which are not.


                       Selected counties we contacted reported using Title III funds for projects
Expenditures by        that were generally aligned with the three broad purposes of Title III—
Some Counties May      wildland fire preparedness, emergency services on federal land, and
                       community wildfire protection planning—but we identified various
Be Inconsistent with   expenditures by some counties that may not be consistent with specific
the Act                requirements of the act. The reasons for this may be in part because of
                       language in the law leaving certain provisions open to varying
                       interpretations and also because of limited and sometimes contradictory
                       guidance available to the counties from the agencies and other sources.


Wildland Fire          Some counties we reviewed used Title III funds for Firewise projects that
Preparedness           were clearly authorized, but others spent funds on broader emergency
                       preparedness or educational activities that may not be consistent with the
                       2008 act. As noted, Title III authorizes counties to spend funds for
                       activities carried out under the Firewise Communities program but
                       specifies that these activities are to involve educating or assisting
                       homeowners with home siting, home construction, or home landscaping
                       to help protect people and property from wildfires. Many counties we
                       reviewed limited their use of some or all of their Title III funds to such
                       activities that were consistent with the act. For example, regarding
                       education, officials from several counties we reviewed told us that they
                       used Title III funds to educate homeowners about the principles of
                       Firewise, which include creating defensible space around homes and
                       choosing home building materials, such as roofing and siding that are
                       more resistant to wildland fire. Officials from these counties described a
                       variety of methods for (1) distributing information, such as door hangers,
                       print or radio advertisements, or calendars, to educate homeowners


                       17
                         To become recognized, communities undertake several actions, including completing a
                       community assessment and creating an action plan, forming a Firewise Board or
                       Committee, helping fund local wildland fire mitigation projects, and submitting an
                       application to the Firewise Communities program.




                       Page 12                                           GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
about Firewise principles and (2) making Firewise materials available at
community events. Several counties used Title III funds for a Firewise
coordinator, according to county officials, whose activities could include
holding educational workshops, assisting communities with Firewise
planning, hosting community events such as “cleanup days” to encourage
homeowners to remove brush and other vegetation from around their
homes, and assisting communities with applications for Firewise
Communities recognition. An official from one such county told us that the
county also formed a coalition of federal, state, and local officials with the
goal of educating people about Firewise; this coalition used a portion of
the county’s Title III funds to create an educational video on Firewise
principles that is shown to homeowners. Some counties used Title III
funds to purchase and outfit Firewise trailers, which county employees
take to communities to publicize and educate residents about the
Firewise program (see fig. 1). Officials from a few counties we reviewed
noted that they have seen improvements at residences since the county
began Firewise education.




Page 13                                       GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
Figure 1: Mobile Firewise Trailer Used to Educate Residents on Firewise Principles




Similarly, a number of counties we reviewed provided wildland fire
mitigation assistance to homeowners at their properties, through activities
such as thinning trees and brush that could fuel a wildland fire. For
example, one county we reviewed said it used all of its Title III funds to
conduct wildland fire mitigation activities at or near private homes, many
of which abut Forest Service, state, or private forested lands. County
officials told us that volunteers, contractors, or crews from local fire
departments performed the activities, with homeowners generally paying
for half of the cost and the county paying the other half, primarily with
Title III funds. 18 Some other counties carried out similar work, but
homeowners paid different portions of the cost, and counties used
different sources of labor. For example, one county used youth crews and




18
  This county also used funds it received from other sources, including grants from the
state, to pay for wildland fire mitigation activities.




Page 14                                              GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
parolees to do fire mitigation work. 19 Another provided grant funds to
homeowners to arrange for the Firewise work themselves. To obtain grant
funding from that county, homeowners must present an invoice from a
licensed landscaping professional for work that might include tree
trimming, brush removal and chipping, and installation of irrigation
systems. According to county officials, homeowners may also receive
funding to pay a portion of the cost of a new roof, siding, or windows or
for purchasing fire-resistant plants. Another county used Title III funds to
pay for personnel to inspect homes and educate homeowners on home
siting and landscaping. The county’s inspectors evaluated homes on
construction methods and materials related to wildland fire exposure,
including roofing materials, attic vents, exterior siding, windows, exterior
doors, stairs, and decks, as well as vegetation around the homes. A few
counties that received smaller amounts of Title III funds took chippers to
communities during Firewise event days to assist homeowners in
disposing of materials cleared from their properties, according to county
officials. (Fig. 2 shows a residence before and after the local fire
department conducted mitigation work).




19
  The 2008 reauthorization of the act eliminated community service work camps as an
authorized use of Title III funds; the original act authorized funds for county employees’
salaries to supervise people completing mandatory community service. The reauthorized
act also eliminated forest-related after-school programs. Officials from this county told us
that the youth crews were funded under these provisions before the act changed in 2008
but that after the reauthorization, the program shifted from an education program to a crew
performing Firewise mitigation work. The county officials also said they began using older
high school and college-aged workers for the program.




Page 15                                               GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
Figure 2: A Private Home in Montana Before and After Wildland Fire Mitigation Work Was Completed Using Title III Funds




                                        In contrast, some counties we reviewed used Title III funds for broader
                                        emergency preparedness activities under the Firewise program that do
                                        not appear consistent with the act because they do not involve providing
                                        fire-related education or assistance to homeowners. For example, two
                                        counties we reviewed told us they spent part of their Title III funds to clear
                                        vegetation along roads, some of which are potential emergency
                                        evacuation routes, and others said they removed vegetation from county
                                        lands, parks, schools, or cemeteries or from larger swaths of land to
                                        create fuel breaks—locations not directly associated with home siting,
                                        home construction, or home landscaping, authorized activities specified
                                        by the act. Four counties used Title III funds to update their 9-1-1
                                        telephone systems, according to county officials, and three used funds to
                                        purchase new address and street signs. For example, one rural county
                                        used Title III funds to purchase over 400 signs to make cabins, homes,
                                        and businesses easier for firefighters and other emergency responders to




                                        Page 16                                          GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
locate. 20 Officials in another rural county told us that before they began an
effort to purchase and put up signs using Title III funds, the county had no
street signs: homeowners would have to tell firefighters and providers of
emergency services to look for the “tree with the pink tape,” for example.
This county and another we reviewed purchased fire danger signs
displaying the area’s current level of wildland fire danger (e.g., low,
medium, or high), according to county officials, who told us that these
signs were to help educate residents about the community’s wildland fire
risk, as well as to motivate homeowners to perform mitigation activities.
Officials from two counties told us that they were planning to use Title III
funds to purchase and install water tanks in remote areas to help in fire
suppression. 21

Counties may have considered expenditures for improving their
emergency response as allowed under Title III of the act because the
Forest Service’s frequently asked questions and other documents do not
emphasize that counties’ Firewise activities with Title III funds must be
limited to providing fire-related education or assistance to homeowners.
Specifically, officials in one county told us that they view Firewise as an
“out-of-the-box program” encompassing a large range of activities, and
they directed us to a Forest Service Title III summary document with a
definition of the Firewise approach that includes effective emergency
response 22—an area in which this county spent the majority of its Title III
funds. Some counties also received guidance on Firewise from other
sources that may not have been consistent with the act. For example,
officials from one county told us that they formed a group of Forest



20
  Some of the signs may have improved the ability of emergency responders to locate
homes, but the act states that Title III funds may be used for “assistance with
implementing techniques in home siting, home construction, and home landscaping.” 16
U.S.C. § 7142(a)(1).
21
  At the time of our interviews with these county officials, these water tanks had not been
purchased or installed.
22
   Officials from this county directed us to the following definition of the Firewise
Communities program, found in a Forest Service document containing information on Title
III funds: “The Firewise Communities approach emphasizes community responsibility for
planning in the design of a safe community as well as effective emergency response, and
individual responsibility for safer home construction and design, landscaping and
maintenance.” This definition is also contained in a user guide to the Firewise
Communities program developed by the National Fire Protection Association (National
Fire Protection Association, A User Reference Guide to the Firewise Communities/USA®
Recognition Program [Quincy, Mass.: 2009]).




Page 17                                               GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
Service, state, and local officials and that all members of the group—
including a local Forest Service official—agreed that emergency response
activities were an appropriate use of Title III funds under the Firewise
category, despite the act’s limitations of Firewise activities to those
involving home siting, construction, and landscaping. In Oregon, an
association that provides guidance to counties receiving Title III funds
advised the Oregon counties to explore the wide array of activities
undertaken under the Firewise Communities program via the Firewise
Communities website, 23 many of which go beyond the Firewise activities
authorized under Title III.

Several counties we reviewed used Title III funds to educate youth on the
Firewise program and other issues related to wildland fire that are also
not consistent with the act. Education to homeowners about Firewise is
clearly authorized under Title III, but youth education was one of the
formerly allowable uses that Congress eliminated when it reauthorized
the Secure Rural Schools Act in 2008. Specifically, some counties used
Title III funds for youth camps, which county officials told us incorporated
aspects of the Firewise program or wildland fire safety, and one county
funded forest-related after-school programs that included a Firewise
educational component. Officials in one of these counties provided a
letter from a local Forest Service official commending the county’s use of
Title III funds for a youth day camp under the Firewise program. A
number of counties in one state gave their Title III funds to the state
university’s cooperative extension service for Firewise education, which
included “Firewise Youth Days.” During these events, extension agents
visited schools to discuss issues related to wildland fire, including a
Firewise component on how to make homes more resistant to wildland
fire, according to an official from the university. Officials in a few other
counties we reviewed told us they planned to use Title III funds to
purchase materials—including Smokey Bear costumes—that would be
used for youth education in schools or at community events. Officials from
the state extension service and some counties that provided youth
education told us that teaching children the principles of the Firewise
program can help protect communities because the children may share
the information with their parents.




23
 The Firewise Communities website is managed by the National Fire Protection
Association.




Page 18                                           GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
                        In its legal views provided to us, Interior stated that uses unrelated to
                        homeowner education and assistance with respect to home siting,
                        construction, and landscaping would not be consistent with the Firewise
                        provision of Title III and, in its legal views, Agriculture agreed that it was
                        reasonable to interpret the provision in this manner. Agriculture added
                        that, in its view, these activities would qualify as authorized activities only
                        if they were carried out in a community with a Firewise-recognized
                        program and that activities associated with meeting the certification
                        requirements for being recognized as a Firewise Community, or with
                        maintaining that recognition once received, would have a direct link to the
                        Firewise Communities program and would therefore also be authorized
                        uses of Title III funds. However, these points are not explicit in the
                        agencies’ guidance to counties, and some counties in our review that
                        used Title III funds for Firewise-related activities had no communities that
                        had received recognition as Firewise Communities, nor had they sought
                        such recognition, according to county officials.


Emergency Services on   Counties we reviewed used Title III funds to pay for a wide variety of
Federal Land            activities and equipment related to emergency services, some of which
                        were clearly consistent with the act and others that were not. Title III
                        authorizes counties to use funds as reimbursement for search and rescue
                        and other emergency services, including firefighting, that they perform on
                        federal lands. Some counties interpreted this provision in the act narrowly
                        and limited their expenditures to after-the-fact reimbursements of county
                        spending on emergency services on federal lands. For example, the
                        sheriff’s offices in a few counties we reviewed submitted invoices for
                        reimbursement for staff hours spent on search-and-rescue activities,
                        including rescuing lost or injured individuals on federal lands. Some of
                        these counties also kept track of county equipment used during these
                        activities and reimbursed the appropriate department with Title III funds
                        according to various usage rates. Another county set aside funds in case
                        they were needed for a search-and-rescue incident, but no such incident
                        had taken place in the county by the time of our review, and these funds
                        had not yet been spent.

                        Some counties spent Title III funds on activities that went beyond
                        providing search and rescue or other emergency services and may not
                        have been consistent with the act. For example, instead of
                        reimbursements for specific incidents, a number of counties used Title III




                        Page 19                                       GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
funds to pay a portion of their fire or emergency services departments’
salary and administrative costs, including office supplies, utility costs, or
insurance. 24 These counties cited the high percentage of federal land in
their county or the difficulty in breaking out the costs of emergency
services on federal versus nonfederal land as justification for this
approach. In addition, some counties we reviewed used the funds to carry
out routine law enforcement patrols on federal land. Officials from one of
these counties told us that these patrols help reduce and deter criminal
activity and enhance the safety of visitors to federal lands. They also told
us that county deputies are able to serve as first responders to any
search and rescue or other emergency situation. In addition to routine
patrols, officials from a few counties told us they used Title III funds to pay
for law enforcement activities related to marijuana eradication, vandalism,
and thefts on federal lands, or for additional law enforcement presence on
federal lands during holidays or special events. 25 Officials from one
county told us that, without Title III funding, they would not be able to
provide any law enforcement services on federal lands, especially given
other large budget cuts the county had already experienced. Indeed,
some counties told us that Title III funds were especially critical to their
law enforcement or search and rescue operations because of worsening
county fiscal conditions. A few counties we reviewed spent Title III funds
for search-and-rescue training. For example, one county used over
$12,000 each year for training on flood, swift-water, and technical rope
rescue operations. Another county used its Title III funds to pay the
personnel costs of an employee who clears debris from roads after major
storms to maintain access to federal lands. And still another provided
funds to the county’s roads department to help rebuild washed-out roads
after floods.




24
  An association that provides guidance to Oregon counties receiving Title III funds
advised the Oregon counties that reasonable overhead, administrative, and capital costs
(such as equipment, overhead, training, and administration) can be included for
reimbursement, but recommended that the counties calculate a portion of these costs that
could be fairly attributed to the services performed on federal lands. Association of O&C
Counties, “More Sideboards for Title III Projects; the “Red-Face” Test Updated,”
Memorandum, Jan. 15, 2009.
25
  Officials from two counties told us they used Title III funds to pay for law enforcement
presence at Rainbow Family of Living Light gatherings. These gatherings often occur on
public lands and can include as many as 20,000 people, posing logistical challenges in
providing law enforcement, food, water, sanitation, and medical care to large gatherings of
people in remote settings.




Page 20                                              GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
In addition, a number of counties we reviewed used Title III funds to
purchase equipment for use during search and rescue and other
emergencies, uses that fell outside the ordinary definition of the term
services. 26 Examples of such uses in counties we reviewed included the
purchase of supplies such as personal safety equipment, rappelling
equipment, and blankets. Based on our review of county documentation,
the equipment some counties purchased also included communication
radios and GPS equipment, sonar equipment, watercraft, all-terrain
vehicles, snowmobiles, and trucks for patrols. One county used Title III
funds to update building infrastructure (e.g., improvements to the heating,
ventilation, and air conditioning system) at its radio towers as part of a
larger project to upgrade the local communication system to offer service
to more agencies and cover a broader area. Another county purchased
smoke detection cameras, which were installed in the national forests in
the county to help detect wildland fires. Officials in one county said they
used Title III funds to help purchase a new generator for the courthouse
where emergency services departments were located, and officials in still
another county said that the county used the funds for improvements at
its 9-1-1 center facility. One county used Title III funds to purchase land to
relocate and upgrade a runway at a county airport used for search-and-
rescue and firefighting operations. This county did so despite an opinion
by the Department of Agriculture’s Office of General Counsel that the
authorized use of funds under Title III of the Secure Rural Schools Act to
reimburse search-and-rescue services would not include the purchase of
land. According to officials from another county, it used Title III funds to
purchase a vehicle used to patrol federal lands, even though it received
informal advice from local Forest Service officials indicating that such
purchases might not be authorized. According to officials from that
county, local Forest Service officials told them that they did not believe
vehicle purchases were authorized under Title III but were unable to
direct the county to clear guidance on this issue; subsequently, the county



26
  For example, the Federal Acquisition Regulation does not specifically define the term
service, but it does define service contract to mean “a contract that directly engages the
time and effort of a contractor whose primary purpose is to perform an identifiable task
rather than to furnish an end item of supply.” 48 C.F.R. § 37.101. The regulation in turn
states that the term supplies includes, but is not limited to, “public works, buildings, and
facilities; ships, floating equipment, and vessels of every character, type, and description,
together with parts and accessories; aircraft and aircraft parts, accessories, and
equipment; machine tools; and the alteration or installation of any of the foregoing.”
48 C.F.R. § 2.101. This regulation does not apply to county expenditures under Title III,
but it does provide some general understanding of the term “services.”




Page 21                                                GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
went forward with the vehicle purchase. Another county attorney advised
officials in the county that they could purchase capital equipment with
Title III funds, even with the fact that such purchases do not fall within the
ordinary definition of the term services. In Oregon, an association that
provides guidance to counties receiving Title III funds advised the Oregon
counties that reasonable capital costs can be included for reimbursement
but recommended that these costs would only seem appropriate on an
annual, amortized basis, and in amounts that are proportional to the
amount the county can demonstrate the assets are actually used for
services performed on federal lands. The association also noted in
guidance documents that any expenditures for equipment or facilities
should be undertaken with great caution and that the county officials
confer with county counsel. 27

We asked the General Counsels of the Departments of Agriculture and
the Interior for their views on whether the following categories of uses
would be consistent with Title III: (a) the purchase or leasing of real
property; (b) the purchase, leasing, or construction of buildings or other
permanent improvements to real property; (c) vehicle purchases;
(d) equipment purchases; 28 and (e) training. In their legal views provided
to us, the agencies stated that these expenditures generally would not be
consistent with Title III. 29




27
  Association of O&C Counties, “Sideboards for Title III Projects; the “Red-Face” Test
Under Pub. L. No.106-393,” Memorandum, Jan. 31, 2001; “More Sideboards for Title III
Projects; the “Red-Face” Test Updated,” Memorandum, Jan. 15, 2009; “Title III
Restrictions, Secure Rural Schools Safety Net Legislation,” Memorandum, May 7, 2010.
28
  Our question was confined to items such as nondisposable personal protective
equipment, and electronic aids such as GPS location devices, which have useful lives
extending beyond a single mission.
29
  In its legal views, Interior stated, “We can envision a scenario under which expenditures
such as training and certain equipment costs may be considered to be directly related to
the provision of emergency services on Federal land and, therefore, may be reimbursable
under the statute. We understand, however, that the Forest Service has interpreted the
statute to exclude expenditures for training and for nondisposable equipment, including
personal equipment that is purchased in anticipation of responding to an emergency, and
we currently are deferring to the Forest Service on this matter.”




Page 22                                               GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
Development of         Some counties we reviewed reported using their Title III funds to develop
Community Wildfire     new or update existing community wildfire protection plans, as authorized
Protection Plans       by the act, but others went beyond these activities in ways that may not
                       be consistent with Title III. Consistent with the act, officials we interviewed
                       from 13 counties used Title III funds to either develop a new plan or
                       update an existing one. For example, officials from one county told us that
                       the county used Title III funds to hire a consultant to update its
                       countywide wildfire protection plan, which was first developed in 2002.
                       Another county used Title III funds to develop its first community wildfire
                       protection plan, and officials told us that the Title III funds they received
                       after reauthorization of the act in 2008 coincided with the beginning of
                       their planning process and that, in developing the plan, they worked with
                       local Forest Service officials to identify communities at risk and also
                       worked with state forestry officials. In contrast, other counties we
                       interviewed certified Title III expenditures for wildfire protection planning
                       activities that may not be consistent with the act. For example, one county
                       used Title III funds to purchase vehicles having firefighting capabilities, as
                       well as other equipment associated with emergency response. Another
                       county contracted for firefighter dispatch and suppression services using
                       Title III funds. Officials from this county explained that county emergency
                       service units cannot reach certain remote areas in the county quickly, so
                       they contract with a state agency to provide dispatch and suppression
                       services during the heavy wildland fire season; since the area served is
                       largely federal land, the county pays for a portion of the contract costs
                       with Title III funds. Another county used Title III funds to hire a consultant
                       to develop an animal evacuation plan and purchased fencing to be used
                       in case livestock were evacuated because of a wildland fire, according to
                       county officials.


                       The 42 counties included in our review that had spent Title III funds did
Counties Have          not consistently follow the related administrative requirements. As noted,
Followed Title III’s   Title III requires counties to certify expenditures annually and provide 45-
                       day notification to the public and any applicable resource advisory
Administrative         committee before spending funds. The 2008 act in effect during our
Requirements           review also required projects to be initiated by September 30, 2011, and
                       funds to be obligated by September 30, 2012. 30 We observed variation in
Inconsistently

                       30
                         As noted, Pub. L. No. 112-141, Div. F, Title I, § 100101, which was enacted as we
                       completed our review, extended each of these dates by 1 year.




                       Page 23                                             GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
the extent to which counties in our review followed or anticipated following
each of these administrative requirements. Specifically, we found the
following variations:

•    Certification. Some counties certified their Title III expenditures on
     time, and in accordance with agency instructions, and other counties
     did not. As noted previously, counties that have spent Title III funds
     must submit an annual certification to the Forest Service or BLM, as
     appropriate, stating that any Title III funds spent in the previous year
     were used for authorized purposes; this certification is due by
     February 1 following the year in which funds were spent. We found
     that many counties submitted the Forest Service’s certification form
     for the preceding year’s expenditures, and some provided letters
     certifying their expenditures. 31 In certifying their expenditures, a
     number of counties provided additional documentation, such as
     project descriptions, public notices, or accounting spreadsheets. In
     contrast, some counties did not submit certifications at all or submitted
     their certifications late, some certified expenditures for multiple years
     simultaneously, and some acknowledged putting incorrect information
     on the certification form. We found various reasons for counties not
     complying with the certification requirements in the act. Three
     counties, according to county officials we interviewed, did not submit
     their certifications to the Forest Service for years they spent funds
     because they were unaware of the requirement to do so. Two other
     counties submitted certification forms for some but not all years in
     which they spent funds, and many counties submitted their
     certification forms after the February 1 deadline specified in the act, in
     some cases because they were initially unaware of or overlooked the
     requirement to do so. Seven counties we interviewed did not certify
     expenditures on the basis of calendar year, as instructed by the
     Forest Service, but reported expenditures either for fiscal year or for
     multiple years. Officials from one such county said they provided
     expenditure information by the county’s fiscal year because those
     expenditures had been audited and noted that it would be difficult to
     break out expenditures by calendar year. Another county certified its
     total Title III expenditures for 4 years on one form. Moreover, some
     counties did not certify the proper expenditure amount on their forms.
     For example, officials from two counties told us that, upon reviewing



31
  Counties are required to certify their expenditures annually but are not specifically
required to use the Forest Service’s form when doing so.




Page 24                                                GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
    the certifications they submitted, they discovered that they had
    underreported their Title III expenditures on their certification forms for
    a particular year, and officials from another county told us that they
    had overreported expenditures by including Title III funds received
    under the previous version of the act. The two counties that
    underreported their Title III expenditures provided corrected
    certifications to the Forest Service after discovering the errors, but an
    official from the county that overreported told us that it would be
    difficult to separate Title III funds received and expended under the
    two iterations of the act because of the county’s accounting and
    auditing processes. This variation in county compliance with the
    certification requirement has contributed to the agencies’ previously
    noted lack of an accurate accounting of the amounts of Title III funds
    spent and unspent.

•   Public notification. Some counties notified the public about their
    proposed uses of Title III funds via published local media and offered
    the required comment period as required by the act, whereas other
    counties did not. As noted previously, before moving forward with
    Title III projects, the act directs each county to publish a proposal
    describing its planned use of Title III funds in local newspapers or
    other publications, after which the county must allow a 45-day
    comment period before using the funds. Officials we interviewed from
    some counties said that they closely followed these requirements or
    even went beyond them. For example, one county published its
    Title III public notices for 45 business days and included project
    details and a public hearing date as part of the notice. Officials from
    another rural county told us that they published notices on a county
    website because the county has no local newspapers or television
    stations; they said they also advertised Title III projects via letters and
    e-mails to county residents. In contrast, other counties followed only
    part of the public notification requirement. For example, four counties
    published notices in their local newspapers but did not allow for a 45-
    day comment period before moving ahead with projects or activities,
    according to county officials and documents; one such county issued
    a public notice and allowed only a 3- to 5-day notification period
    before holding a public hearing to allocate Title III funds. Other
    counties issued public notices in some years but not in others,
    according to county officials we interviewed. For example, according
    to county officials we interviewed in one county, they published a
    notice in 2009 for planned Title III expenditures that year but did not
    issue another notice until 2012, when they published a notice for all
    Title III funds received for fiscal years 2008 through 2011. This notice
    was published after the fact, when the county had already spent much


Page 25                                       GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
    of the funding advertised in the notice. In addition, we found four
    counties that did not issue any public notices on their Title III project
    proposals, and officials from these counties told us that they were
    unaware of the requirement to do so. We also noted variations in the
    degree of detail in the published notices, with some notices fully
    describing the Title III projects and others simply including one-line
    descriptions. For example, one county published a paragraph on each
    of its Title III proposals, which detailed specifics of each project and
    expected outcomes, such as enhanced public awareness about
    Firewise and improved countywide emergency response maps, while
    other counties provided one-line descriptions of their project proposals
    or repeated the same information in notices published in subsequent
    years. Nevertheless, officials in most counties that published public
    notices told us that they received virtually no substantive comments
    on their proposed projects. Officials from five counties told us that
    they had received substantive comments on their Title III proposals.

•   Notice to resource advisory committees. Some counties submitted
    Title III project proposals to applicable resource advisory committees
    as required by the act, while others did not. Officials in one county told
    us that they presented proposed Title III projects at resource advisory
    committee meetings, and officials in four counties told us that they
    wrote to the committees to notify them of their Title III projects. Other
    counties, however, did not notify their resource advisory committees
    of Title III projects. Some of the reasons cited by county officials for
    not notifying resource advisory committees include (1) they were
    unaware of the requirement to do so; (2) the committee meets only
    once a year in the summer, which does not coincide with the county’s
    timeline for the Title III budgeting process; and (3) the county planned
    to notify the resource advisory committee but did not because a local
    Forest Service official stated that resource advisory committees were
    involved only in Title II, not Title III projects—despite specific
    reference to such committees in Title III of the act. Some counties that
    did not provide required notification told us they were unable to do so
    because no applicable committee existed in the county. For example,
    the resource advisory committee in one county we reviewed became
    active only in 2011, according to county officials, and other counties
    still do not have applicable committees because they did not receive
    any Title II funds, the primary purpose for forming such committees. In
    some instances where the advisory committees were not formally
    notified, county officials told us that they believed that informal
    notification had been provided because some officials involved in
    selecting the county’s Title III projects also sat on the relevant
    resource advisory committee. In one such county, officials told us that


Page 26                                       GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
     one person had simultaneously served as both the county manager
     and the chair of the resource advisory committee, so he was clearly
     aware of the county’s Title III projects. Officials in a number of
     counties told us they received no, or minimal, input from resource
     advisory committees, but several other counties said that their local
     committees were more involved by sometimes providing input on
     Title III project selection or approving selected projects. Nevertheless,
     the act provides no formal role for resource advisory committees in
     selecting or approving Title III projects. 32

•    Project initiation. Some counties initiated projects by September 30,
     2011, as required by the 2008 act in effect during our review, and
     others did not. The counties did not receive their Title III funds for
     fiscal year 2011 until 2012, but officials from some counties told us
     that they developed a process enabling them to initiate projects before
     the deadline. For example, one county ensured that it had completed
     the necessary steps for initiating its Title III projects before the
     September 30, 2011, deadline, including budgeting for the projects
     and completing the associated public notification process, according
     to county officials. In contrast, other counties told us that they did not
     initiate all of their Title III projects by the September 30, 2011,
     deadline for varying reasons. For example, officials in one county told
     us that county guidelines prohibited initiation of projects before
     funding was actually received. Another county had not initiated all of
     its Title III projects because some of its previous projects had cost
     less than estimated, unexpectedly leaving the county more Title III
     funds to spend; county officials told us that they were selecting
     additional Title III projects to use the extra funding. Officials from one
     county told us the county took no steps to initiate any projects by the
     deadline because it was unaware it would receive Title III funds in
     2012. Counties now have additional time to initiate Title III projects,
     however, because the 2012 reauthorization of the act extended the
     deadline for initiating such projects to September 30, 2012.

•    Obligation of funds. Officials we interviewed from nearly all 42
     counties that had spent Title III funds told us that they anticipated
     obligating all of their Title III funds by September 30, 2012—the 2008
     act in effect during our review required unobligated funds to be


32
  Under earlier versions of the bill ultimately enacted in 2000, these committees would
have had a more significant role in selecting and reviewing Title III projects, but such a
role was eliminated from the version that became law.




Page 27                                                GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
                  returned to the U.S. Treasury after that date—and officials from
                  several of these counties told us they had already done so.
                  Nevertheless, some county officials reported being confused about
                  this part of the act. For example, officials from one county told us that
                  they were initially unclear about what was required for funds to be
                  considered “obligated,” but after seeking guidance from a number of
                  sources, they determined that their budgeting process was adequate
                  to meet the act’s requirement. Similarly, officials in another county told
                  us they believed they had 3 years from when they received Title III
                  funds to spend them and were thus unaware of the September 2012
                  deadline; despite this misunderstanding, the county had already
                  obligated all of its Title III funds at the time of our review. Similar to the
                  requirement for initiating projects, however, the deadline for obligating
                  Title III funds was extended to September 2013, allowing counties
                  additional time to obligate funds.

              For more than a decade, the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-
Conclusions   Determination Act has allowed the Forest Service and BLM to aid
              counties that include federal lands by providing payments to help offset
              the loss of revenue these counties once received from federal timber
              sales. Within the act, Title III has helped counties address the
              consequences of their proximity to federal lands by providing
              reimbursements for emergency services the counties furnish on those
              lands, as well as funds to help protect communities from the threat of
              wildland fires. The act contains language limiting the use of Title III funds
              in carrying out these activities, but it does not define key terms or fully
              specify the activities that qualify as allowable uses of Title III funds—
              leaving some of its provisions open to interpretation. The Forest Service
              and BLM have provided relatively little oversight of county expenditures
              and have not issued regulations as required by the act; moreover, the
              guidance they have provided is sometimes vague and does not always
              appear consistent with the act. Such limitations, in combination with the
              sometimes-unclear language in the act itself, have left counties to
              interpret on their own what is allowable under the act and what is not—
              and some counties are spending their Title III funds in ways that appear
              inconsistent with the act’s requirements with little oversight from the
              agencies. In light of the lack of clarity in the act and agency guidance, and
              because of the constrained fiscal environment that some counties are
              experiencing, some counties may be adopting a more expansive
              interpretation of what is allowed under Title III so as to supplement scarce
              county funds and maintain county services. In addition, some counties
              are not fully abiding by the administrative requirements of Title III, such as



              Page 28                                         GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
                     providing sufficient notice of proposed spending or not properly certifying
                     earlier expenditures.


                     If Congress chooses to extend Title III of the Secure Rural Schools and
Matter for           Community Self-Determination Act beyond the 1-year reauthorization
Congressional        recently enacted, it should consider revising and clarifying the language
                     of Title III to make explicit which types of expenditures are and are not
Consideration        allowable under the act.


                     We recommend that the Secretary of Agriculture direct the Chief of the
Recommendation for   Forest Service, and that the Secretary of the Interior direct the Director of
Executive Action     BLM, to 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.


                     We provided a draft of this report for review and comment to the
Agency Comments      Departments of Agriculture and the Interior. In its written comments, the
and Our Evaluation   Forest Service, responding on behalf of the Department of Agriculture,
                     generally agreed with our findings and recommendation. The Forest
                     Service’s comments are reproduced in appendix II. The Forest Service
                     also provided technical comments, which we incorporated as appropriate.
                     Likewise, Interior generally agreed with our findings and recommendation,
                     and its written comments are reproduced in appendix III.

                     While Interior generally agreed with our findings and recommendation, it
                     expressed concern about how we characterized BLM’s review of
                     certification forms submitted by counties. Interior noted that it believed
                     BLM had fulfilled its responsibilities under the Secure Rural Schools Act
                     because BLM reviewed the certifications submitted by counties. We made
                     changes to the report to clarify that the agencies did not review county
                     certifications to determine whether counties had spent funds
                     appropriately. Interior also suggested we amplify our discussion of its
                     legal interpretation regarding oversight responsibilities; however, we
                     believe this point is sufficiently addressed in the body of our report and
                     have made no changes in response to this comment.

                     We are sending copies of this report to the Secretaries of Agriculture and
                     the Interior, the Chief of the Forest Service, the Director of the Bureau of
                     Land Management, the appropriate congressional committees, and other



                     Page 29                                      GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
interested parties. In addition, the report is available at no charge on the
GAO website at http://www.gao.gov.

If you or your staff members have any questions about this report, please
contact me at (202) 512-3841 or mittala@gao.gov. Contact points for our
Offices of Congressional Relations and Public Affairs may be found on
the last page of this report. GAO staff who made key contributions to this
report are listed in appendix IV.




Anu K. Mittal
Director, Natural Resources and Environment




Page 30                                       GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
Appendix I: Objectives, Scope, and
              Appendix I: Objectives, Scope, and
              Methodology



Methodology

              Our objectives were to examine (1) actions the Forest Service and
              Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have taken to oversee county
              spending under Title III, (2) consistency of selected counties’
              expenditures with the purposes of the act, and (3) the extent to which
              these counties followed Title III’s administrative requirements.

              To conduct this work, we reviewed relevant laws and agency documents,
              including the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination
              Act of 2000, as reauthorized; legislative history on the act; legal opinions
              related to Title III; and Forest Service guidance made available to
              counties, including the Forest Service’s frequently asked questions
              document and guidance provided on returning unobligated funds to the
              U.S. Treasury. We also obtained legal interpretations in writing from the
              Department of Agriculture’s Office of General Counsel and Department of
              the Interior’s Office of the Solicitor on various issues related to the act
              generally and Title III in particular, and we interviewed Forest Service and
              BLM officials about their oversight activities. In addition, we reviewed the
              forms indicating counties’ election to allocate funds under the act to
              Title III projects and the forms counties submitted to the federal agencies
              certifying that the funds they expended in the previous year were used for
              authorized purposes.

              To obtain information about the projects and activities on which counties
              spent Title III funds, as well as about their administrative practices related
              to Title III, we used a semistructured interview template to interview, in
              person or by telephone, officials from 42 of the 358 counties receiving
              Title III funds since the act’s 2008 reauthorization. These 42 counties
              constitute a nonprobability sample of counties receiving Title III funds,
              which we selected to reflect variation in the amount of Title III funds
              received, the amount spent, and geographic location. We initially
              contacted 30 counties that Forest Service records indicated had spent
              Title III funds, selected as follows:

              •   one county selected because of concerns about questionable Title III
                  spending, conveyed by the Forest Service;
              •   one county selected because of concerns about questionable Title III
                  spending, conveyed by congressional staff;
              •   one county selected on the basis of our review of certifications;
              •   two counties in Oregon selected because they received the most
                  Title III funding of any county in the nation; and
              •   twenty-five counties selected from locations across the country that
                  receive Title III funding, in an attempt to include variation in amounts
                  of funding received and variation in geographic location.



              Page 31                                       GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
Appendix I: Objectives, Scope, and
Methodology




We contacted an additional 15 counties because Forest Service files had
no records of any Title III spending by these counties, and we sought to
interview county officials to discuss their reasons for not spending funds.
After contacting these counties, however, we learned that 12 had indeed
spent Title III funds, while 3 counties had spent no Title III funds at the
time of our review—giving a total of 42 counties in our review that had
spent Title III funds and 3 that had not. 1

We collected and reviewed documentation from the 42 counties that had
spent Title III funds, including public notices related to Title III and
detailed expenditure information. We did not, however, conduct a
financial audit of counties’ expenditures. We interviewed the 3 counties
that had not yet spent any Title III funds to discuss why they had not and
to discuss their plans for spending or returning any remaining funds.
These counties were likewise selected for variation in Title III funds
received and geographic location. Because the 42 counties we spoke
with make up a nonprobability sample, the information we obtained from
these interviews cannot be generalized beyond these counties; however
the information provided us with an understanding of how the selected
counties spent Title III funds and the actions taken to follow Title III’s
administrative requirements. See table 1 for the counties we contacted
during our review.




1
  Initially, we contacted 15 counties that did not have a certification form for Title III
expenditures in 2009 or 2010 in the Forest Service files. Of these 15 counties, however,
12 had in fact spent Title III funds, leaving only 3 counties that had not spent any Title III
funds. We did not find certification forms for these 12 counties for varied reasons. Some of
these 12 counties had started spending Title III funds only in 2011 and, therefore, were
not yet required to submit spending certifications; others had spent funds and not
submitted certification forms to the Forest Service; and still others told us they had
submitted certification forms, even though we did not find the forms in the Forest Service’s
files. We asked these 12 counties questions about their Title III projects and administrative
practices and included them in our sample of 42 counties that had spent Title III funds.




Page 32                                                GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
Appendix I: Objectives, Scope, and
Methodology




Table 1: Counties Contacted During GAO Review

Alabama                                    Covington
Arizona                                    Coconino
California                                 Butte
                                           Plumas
                                           Shasta
                                           Siskiyou
                                           Tulare
Colorado                                   Gunnison
                                           Park
                                           Rio Blanco
                                           Saguache
Florida                                    Liberty
                                           Marion
Georgia                                    Lumpkin
Idaho                                      Boise
                                           Clearwater
                                           Idaho
                                           Shoshone
Michigan                                   Mackinac
Minnesota                                  St. Louis
Mississippi                                Greene
                                           Scott
Missouri                                   Iron
                                           Ripley
                                           Shannon
Montana                                    Granite
                                           Lincoln
                                           Missoula
                                           Sanders
New Mexico                                 Catron
                                           Rio Arriba
North Carolina                             Cherokee
                                           Graham




Page 33                                         GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
Appendix I: Objectives, Scope, and
Methodology




 Oregon                                    Douglas
                                           Josephine
                                           Lane
 Pennsylvania                              Warren
 South Dakota                              Lawrence
 Tennessee                                 Stewart
 Utah                                      Emery
 Washington                                Skagit
                                           Skamania
                                           Yakima
 Wisconsin                                 Forest
 Wyoming                                   Fremont
Source: GAO.



To determine the total amount in Title III payments that counties had
received for fiscal years 2008 through 2011, we accessed reports from
the Forest Service’s All Service Receipts database and summary
documents on total payments from BLM. To determine the reliability of
the Forest Service’s All Service Receipts database, we verified data
inputs into the system back to source documentation, verified payment
amounts with county officials we contacted, and interviewed
knowledgeable Forest Service officials. We found that these data were
sufficiently reliable for the purposes of this review. To determine how
much Title III funding counties reported spending from 2009 through
2011, we collected certification forms submitted by counties to the Forest
Service and BLM before May 18, 2012, and totaled the amounts indicated
therein. For counties for which we did not find certification forms in
information provided to us by the Forest Service, we collected additional
certification forms directly from the counties and included their reported
spending in our total amount.

To obtain perspectives on Title III from nongovernmental entities, we
interviewed representatives from several nongovernmental organizations,
including the National Association of Counties, National Forest Counties
and Schools Coalition, Western Governors’ Association, Headwaters
Economics, Association of O&C Counties, and National Fire Protection
Association. We also reviewed reports from these and other
organizations, including research on county expenditures under the
Title III program and outside guidance related to Title III and the Firewise
Communities program.




Page 34                                      GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
Appendix I: Objectives, Scope, and
Methodology




We conducted this performance audit from August 2011 to July 2012 in
accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards.
Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain
sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our
findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. We believe that
the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and
conclusions based on our audit objectives.




Page 35                                    GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
Appendix II: Comments from the Department
             Appendix II: Comments from the Department
             of Agriculture, Forest Service



of Agriculture, Forest Service




             Page 36                                     GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
Appendix III: Comments from the
              Appendix III: Comments from the Department
              of the Interior



Department of the Interior




              Page 37                                      GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
Appendix III: Comments from the Department
of the Interior




Page 38                                      GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
Appendix IV: GAO Contact and Staff
                  Appendix IV: GAO Contact and Staff
                  Acknowledgments



Acknowledgments

                  Anu K. Mittal, (202) 512-3841 or mittala@gao.gov
GAO Contact
                  In addition to the contact person named above, Steve Gaty (Assistant
Staff             Director), Ellen W. Chu, Richard P. Johnson, Anne Rhodes-Kline, Lesley
Acknowledgments   Rinner, and Leigh McCaskill White made key contributions to this report.




(361331)
                  Page 39                                    GAO-12-775 Secure Rural Schools Act
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