Updated: February 18, 2014 at 6:02 pm
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The U.S. government is seeking the return of $7 million paid over the last 37 years to three Montana school districts near Yellowstone National Park, saying they were overpayments from a program that should have ended decades ago.
Montana's congressional delegation is seeking a waiver, saying the schools will be unable to repay that amount.
Gardiner School Districts 4 and 7 and Gallatin School District 69 in West Yellowstone have received special payments from the park since 1948. The program helped fund districts that serve the children of park employees who live on untaxed federal land.
U.S. Department of Interior officials say those payments should have stopped in 1976, when Congress passed new legislation that created a payments-in-lieu-of-taxes program that included Yellowstone.
Instead, the schools received money from both programs.
Interior officials only recently learned of the overpayments, and the department is legally obligated to recover the money, spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw said.
Democratic U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh, as well as Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, sent Interior Secretary Sally Jewell a letter saying the school districts will suffer from the loss of funding and will not be able to repay what is owed.
"These rural school districts will be hard-pressed to rework their annual budgets without these annual payments, much less pay back the millions of dollars they received through the National Park Service," the letter read.
Interior officials said they are working with the delegation and the schools to find a solution.
"As soon as this issue came to light, the (Department of Interior) took immediate steps to rectify the situation, notify all relevant parties regarding repayment and the discussions surrounding this issue have been productive and ongoing," Kershaw said.
One possibility is that Montana's congressional delegation could push legislation that retroactively authorizes the 37 years' worth of payments to the schools, Interior officials said.