Missoula County inks new policy, seeks reimbursement for political campaign costs

President Donald Trump made his third of four campaign stops in Montana in October. Missoula County commissioners signed a new policy on Wednesday, Nov. 21, stating that all future campaign events that request more than $1,000 in public services will be asked to reimburse the costs. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Political campaigns in Missoula County that require more than $1,000 in public security and other taxpayer expenses will be sent a bill seeking reimbursement, regardless of their party affiliation.

Missoula County commissioners approved the new policy on Wednesday, ending a debate that began when President Donald Trump and the Matt Rosendale campaign rang up more than $13,000 in expenses charged to taxpayers during last month’s rally.

“This strikes exactly the right tone,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “For those who are completely jaundiced on public servants, there will always be some suspicion. But this significantly cuts off at the legs the argument that this is pure political cronyism.”

Trump held his third of four Montana campaign rallies in Missoula in October in an unsuccessful bid to unseat Sen. Jon Tester and get Rosendale elected to the Senate.

The rally cost Missoula County taxpayers roughly $13,000, including more than $11,000 in overtime costs for the sheriff’s department, $1,000 for the 911 dispatch center, and another $700 for emergency services.

At that point, the county had no policy seeking reimbursement from campaign events on behalf of the taxpayers, though it does now.

“These are the events that are really causing the issue as far as unplanned, unbudgeted costs that all of a sudden we have to incur,” said David Wall, the county auditor. “You don’t have to worry about deciding per event, should we or shouldn’t we. If it reaches that cost threshold, we will and if doesn’t, we won’t. That also takes the politics out of it.”

The three other Montana counties visited by Trump and Rosendale also incurred significant costs. The president’s stop in Billings cost taxpayers $59,000, according to the Billings Gazette, while his stop in Great Falls rang up nearly $80,000 in charges.

“As the squeeze comes on local governments for more things, everyone is starting to ask if these are costs local taxpayers should be bearing,” said Missoula County Commissioner Cola Rowley. “Maybe there will be a change in practice at the national level.”

When a political campaign seeks assistance from Missoula County government where the costs exceed $1,000, commissioners will request reimbursement from the party responsible for the event.

While the county cannot force a political campaign to pay, the new policy puts the expectation on the table. It also begs the question as to whether taxpayers should bear the cost of funding a candidate’s run for office.

“If enough local governments start to ask, and enough local people hear about how these costs are being pushed onto taxpayers, there may be more pressure and this system where campaigns may start to realize it needs to change,” Wall said.

Missoula County, along with Cascade County, have sent a bill to the Trump campaign seeking reimbursement for expenses incurred during its Rosendale rallies.

Missoula County commissioners don’t expect to receive a $13,000 check, though its new policy makes its expectations clear. It also eliminates the optics of party favoritism, as any candidate from any party will be faced with the same expectation to pay the taxpayers back.

“I’m not holding my breath that we’ll be reimbursed, but it’s a strong policy statement,” Strohmaier said. “If we’re asked to provide assistance for Joe Biden next moth and it exceeds the thresholds we’ve set, I fully expect we’ll be submitting an invoice for that, just as we did for the last political leader that came to Missoula.”

Biden, the former vice president and always a rumored Democratic candidate for the presidency, is expected to visit Missoula on Dec. 3 as part of his “American Promise” tour.

The event is scheduled at the Dennison Theater at the University of Montana. So far, the event hasn’t requested any public security assistance.