Missoula County commissioners: State cuts impact local property taxpayers

Property owners recently received tax bills and many saw significant increases. Missoula County collects property taxes for all taxing jurisdictions such as the City of Missoula, school districts, fire districts, state schools, special districts and improvement districts for infrastructure and transportation services.

Property taxes go up or down for four reasons: the State Department of Revenue appraises your property and sets the taxable value based upon property type and market conditions which increase or decrease your taxable value; local taxing jurisdictions such as schools, local governments and special districts levy taxes to meet budgeted expenditures; voters approve bonds or operating levies; and, finally, newly taxable property – new construction – is added to the tax rolls.

Missoula County receives revenue from sources beyond property taxes including fees for service, revenue from the State of Montana and the federal government. For example, Missoula County receives per diem reimbursement from the State for housing State inmates in the Missoula County Detention Facility. The legislature capped the per diem rate for State prisoners well below actual costs in the last session and now County taxpayers must cover an annual $2 million deficit.

Other proposed cuts would affect the City-County Health Department in protecting air and water quality and public health. Legislators will weigh substantial cuts to these State-funded programs this week, while the demand for services continues to increase. Missoula County is responsible for ensuring public health and safety and we’ll have to consider cutting services or asking local taxpayers make up the difference in the next fiscal year.

This fiscal year, Missoula County lost more than $820,000 in federal dollars when the Secure Rural Schools Act was not reauthorized by Congress. The County relies on SRS funds to maintain rural roads and mitigate fire risk to homes. To compensate, we opted to suspend the dust abatement program to allocate resources for repairing several roads with severe damage from the heavy spring rains. In 2018, we will be unable to partner with local fire departments to reduce fuels in forested communities.

Last fiscal year, Missoula County lost more than $320,000 in revenue from protested property taxes by Northwestern Energy. The County also experienced a $340,000 shortfall over the biennium from cuts approved by the legislature to the Entitlement Share program. The Entitlement Share program takes a variety of State fees collected by counties and distributes a portion of that money back to counties as reimbursement for administering State programs like vehicle registration. It’s a complex formula and we work with local legislators to protect this revenue every legislative session. Further cuts will mean direct impacts to property taxpayers or a reduction in services.

In the last two fiscal years and with the proposed State budget cuts, Missoula County will see a revenue decrease of $3.4 million. It is our duty to provide the essential services expected by our community and required by State law, and to highlight the connection between decisions made in Helena and the tax implications to Missoula County residents.

We’re here to help you understand your tax bill. We’ve received dozens of calls and take pride in taking the time to answer your questions. Join us in following the work of the special legislative session and contacting our representatives. Like us, the State is required to adopt a balanced budget. The decisions facing our lawmakers aren’t easy and they need to hear from their constituents.

Missoula County Commissioners Jean Curtiss, Cola Rowley and Dave Strohmaier