Missoula County to send letters to all statewide campaigns: Don’t stiff taxpayers on security costs

Rep. Greg Gianforte waives to the crowd during a MAGA campaign rally with President Donald Trump at Missoula International Airport on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. The event cost Missoula County taxpayers $13,000, which the campaign never reimbursed. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

Saying taxpayers shouldn’t foot the bill for large partisan rallies, Missoula County on Thursday agreed to send letters to all statewide candidates informing them of local policy that requires their campaign to cover the cost security.

No campaign has announced any plans to hold a rally in Missoula, though that’s expected to change as election season heats up. Commissioners want to ensure that all campaigns are on the same page when it comes to the cost of security.

Their message: Don’t stiff the taxpayers.

“The advantage in doing that is heading off at the pass the erroneous assumption that we’re applying this standard to a certain political party and not across the board,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier.

“That’s not the case. That’s the reason why we drafted this policy in the first place, to make it entirely transparent that regardless of political party or affiliation, our expectation is that Missoula County taxpayers ought not be footing the bill for partisan campaign events.”

While the policy and forthcoming letters aren’t targeted to any particular party or candidate, the issue came to a head in 2018 when President Donald Trump held a MAGA rally at the Missoula airport to support the campaigns of Greg Gianforte and Matt Rosendale.

The event forced Missoula County to spend $13,000 on overtime and staffing at the sheriff’s department. Missoula County sent a bill to the campaigns in hopes of recovering the costs but it never received a reply, let alone $13,000.

“We have not received a response back from either of the campaigns to whom the invoice was sent,” Strohmaier said.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders visited Missoula during the 2016 election season to support former congressional candidate Rob Quist. Missoula County wants all future candidates to know the cost of security will be up to them to cover. (Missoula Current file photo)

In all, Trump’s four visits to Montana in 2018 cost state taxpayers around $100,000, including $13,000 in Missoula County, $10,500 in Gallatin County, $35,000 in Yellowstone County and $40,000 in Cascade County.

Current Missoula County policy states that if the county spends more than $1,000 on security, it will bill the campaign for the costs. Yet despite the policy, the county has never been reimbursed by Gianforte or Rosendale.

The county is looking to address that moving forward, saying it shouldn’t fall to the taxpayers to cover partisan events, regardless of party.

“This is something that more and more communities are doing,” said county auditor Dave Wall. “As it becomes more of the norm, I think campaigns are going to feel more pressure to actually pay for these events as more communities ask for reimbursement.”

Missoula County doesn’t currently require a permit to hold a large political rally outside city limits. But the county could consider doing so if the crowd exceeds a certain size. In the act of getting the permit, the host would be required to cover the cost of security.

But that may not be possible given the last-minute nature of political rallies and the secrecy that sometimes comes with them – or when the Secrete Service is involved. Trump intends to begin holding MAGA rallies next month and a recent Twitter exchange between Trump and Sen. Steve Daines suggested he could be returning to Montana.

Other campaigns also are expected to pass through Missoula – the state’s second largest city. But none have been announced to date.

“This is a good thing heading into the fall when these things will happen,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick.